Category Archives: About books

A successful recipe – review article

For this, the second in my books-by-my-bed review series (see below for links to earlier blog posts on this theme) I’m staying with the subject of death. But this time it’s fictional, I think…

Arguably, Anthony Horowitz’s work is best known by fans at opposite ends of the age range; by ‘older’ TV watchers for Foyles War, Midsomer Murders and Poirot and by young readers for his Alex Rider series (which have sold a cool 19 million copies worldwide). As if to confirm his supreme talent, he was commissioned to write a James Bond novel – Trigger Mortis, published in 2015. You need a safe pair of hands for that one.

I’ve enjoyed odd episodes of Foyle’s War but have not watched it avidly; it was via another string in Horowitz’s bow – writing new Sherlock Holmes mysteries in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle – that I got into his writing.  The book I’ve recently finished reading – a gift that had sat unread by my bed for many months for no good reason – is The Sentence is Death. It’s second in an expected trilogy featuring ‘disgraced private investigator’ (it says in the back-cover blurb) Daniel Hawthorne.

Like all good crime-fighters, despite his murky past Hawthorne unofficially works alongside the police because they know he’ll probably solve the crime before them and they want to be able to take the credit.

You don’t have to be a detective to work out from the book title that the crime in question is murder. For me, the book would read as a fairly routine mystery (if there is such a thing) if it wasn’t for its structure – not just the plot – and the author’s role within it. Just as Noises Off by Michael Frayn is a play within a play (and a big West End hit that I enjoyed seeing in the early 1980s) so The Sentence is Death is really a story within a story.

From page one, where the narrator is juggling being on set for the filming of Foyle’s War with pursuing the murder investigation that’s the core of the book, Horowitz blurs fact and fiction (and clearly identifies himself as the narrator). Even the cover illustration of the paperback edition features the (real) iron bridge over Archway Road in Highgate, North London – informally knows as ‘suicide bridge’ for reasons I’m sure I don’t need to go into – that has a significant walk-on part in the story.

Interweaving fact and fiction is, of course, nothing new for thriller writers – I’ve hitch-hiked with Jack Reacher all over the USA and I trust Lee Child to have done his research to make the scenery and locations authentic. What I think makes this book quite exceptional is how Anthony Horowitz involves his real-life writer self in the story he’s telling. When you read the book, you’re reading about the author researching the book you’re reading – if you see what I mean.

I’ll never know how authors manage to plan their books, structure their plots, develop characters, work out their relationships, and sustain parallel timelines all at once, but this book adds another ingredient to the recipe and, continuing my tired analogy, cooks up a treat for the hungry reader.

Even though I read the book during lockdown – with, arguably, more time to read and less competition for my attention – I really did look forward to returning to it over the Easter weekend I consumed it – fast for me, given that I’m a slow reader. But I urge you to make up your own mind (the proof of the pudding and all that) and share your verdict here.

Related blog posts:

To order The Sentence is Death–A-mind-bending-murder-mystery-from/23639303  (When you order online from Hive in the UK, you support local independent bookshops)

Death and life – review article

Some years ago, when my work-life balance was causing me serious stress (I’m reformed now…) I used to remind myself that “Nobody on their deathbed ever says ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’”. As a mantra it helped bring some perspective back into my life, and I’ve since repeated it when counselling others.

Little did I know at the time, but the quote probably originated from a now-famous blog post – Regrets of the dying – written a decade ago, which I discovered soon after it was published.

The five regrets in the piece were simple and wonderfully matter-of-fact, but ultimately deep:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier

I could relate to each of those five regrets, even though I was only 54, and certainly not close to death. I suspect many men of my age would agree – particularly the one about expressing our feelings!

Author Bronnie Ware had written the blog post from her experience of giving one-to-one end-of-life care to many people – men and women, mostly older, but some as young as I was when reading the piece. The positive response to her initial piece prompted her to write a book – The Top Five Regrets of the Dying – a Life Transformed by the Dearly Departing – which I would describe as a personal understanding of life through death. For Bronnie Ware, it’s also about re-birth after being on the brink of taking her own life, induced by what reads like PTSD at a time when, objectively, she shouldn’t have been happier.

The book isn’t just about her close relationships with people with terminal illnesses, it includes many other diverse elements of her personal and professional life – including a violent upbringing, an abusive adult relationship, teaching song-writing in a women’s prison, house-sitting other people’s properties, travel to remote places, falling in and out of love and, ultimately, motherhood.

Many of the issues addressed by the author are life lessons for us all – much is about finding balance: the need to work and the desire to find something we love to do; a longing to be free but wanting to have enduring relationships; a desire to travel but feeling a need for security and having somewhere to settle down. She shares wisdom throughout the book – not just her own reflections, but advice she’s inherited. “They say everything comes down to love or fear: every emotion, every action, and every thought” and “Nothing good can be done alone” are just two of many.

The author’s relationships – with herself, with family, friends, the natural environment and, of course, the people for whom she is a professional but loving carer – are a golden thread running through the book. She writes well and movingly – I had many a tear in my eye as she described (with verbatim records of conversations that makes me think there’s been some artistic licence in the retelling) intimate moments so vividly.

The subject matter of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying may not seem like an obviously read while the world is witnessing a pandemic which is bringing death to thousands. But the book is strangely uplifting and the writing makes the numbers real and lifts the taboo about talking about death.

As Bronnie Ware herself writes “Our society has shut death out, almost as a denial of its existence. This denial leaves both the dying person and the family or friends totally unprepared for something that is inevitable. We are all going to die. But rather than acknowledge the existence of death, we try to hide it. It is as if we are trying to convince ourselves that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ really works. But is doesn’t because we carry on trying to validate ourselves through our material life and associated fearful behaviour instead.”

Further reading

Bronnie Ware’s blog

The book–A-Life-Transformed-by-the-Dearly-Departing/23828296

A related blog post

Shedloads of DIY – review article

At the time of writing, we’re all being instructed to stay home because of the Coronavirus pandemic. ‘Staying home’ means different things for different people – those lucky enough to have gardens and garages have space to breathe and do stuff; I feel for those in tower blocks with young children for whom the options are very much more limited.

Already there are people speculating how the world might be different ‘when this is all over’ and I think, at a personal level, there’s no harm in thinking about projects you might undertake when the lock-down is lifted (or while isolating if you have the space, tools and materials to hand). With this in mind, I’m highlighting two books that might help practically-minded people at least plan some creative home-based projects.

Note: These reviews first appeared in Shoulder to Shoulder – the free monthly bulletin from the UK Men’s Sheds Association

DIY for beginners

Full declaration: I know co-author Alison Winfield-Chislett as it’s she I have to thank for introducing me to the world of Repair Cafes (she runs one from her wonderful Goodlife Centre in London). When, with Alison’s encouragement, I set up a Repair Café in Royston I was amazed to discover how many people of a certain age and stage seemed to know about electronics. I was not one of them and, when I asked how they knew about fixing electrical appliances, I got a puzzled response; ‘doesn’t everyone?’

Well the answer is ‘no’, or nor does everyone learn DIY at their mother’s knee. Which is why I welcome this hands-on book that guides the first-timer through the basics of DIY – from the tools and terms, through 30 step-by-step projects around your home, to the techniques.

I love the ‘DIY hacks’ sprinkled throughout the text – so you can talk like a professional, even if you take a while to learn to work like one. I was also pleased the book has a gender-free feel to it – both in words and pictures – which may be explained by the female co-authorship.

Speaking as a grumpy old pedant who worked in book publishing for 15 years, while I welcome the inclusion of a jargon-buster and index, the book’s transatlantic character means there’s no explanation of the similarities between anchors and Rawlplugs, between P-traps and U-bends, and I had to check that a vice and a vise are the same thing. But maybe I’m just splitting hairs; not one of the DIY projects…

Beginner Guide to DIY: Essential DIY Techniques for the First Timer by Jo Behari and Alison Winfield-Chislett. Order online at and (if you must…)

More about The Goodlife Centre here

Haynes Shed Manual

Another full declaration: I went to the same school as Alex Johnson – co-author of this book – and my top tips for starting a Men’s Shed appear on page 173.

Shedders know it’s a lot of fun working alongside others in a shared workshop, but we can also enjoy tinkering in a shed at the bottom of the garden. This new Shed Manual from Haynes (better known for their car maintenance guides) is a great resource for working on a range of timber-based projects in home and community workspaces, not just sheds. The authors show their passion when they say “Whatever tools you have already, a big project such as building a shed is always a good opportunity to buy some more!”

Alongside four step-by-step shed-building projects are generic sections on planning, tools and materials, furnishing and decoration. There’s more than a nod to environmental considerations, including an eco-shed build, and references to sustainable energy and roofing. But I was surprised not to see more being made of reclaimed materials; I know that making a shed from pallets is neither as easy nor as cheap as many people imagine, but reclaimed timber can make an important statement about greener ways of working.

Who would use (it’s very much a tool and probably something you’d not read from cover to cover) this book? Perhaps a reference to Eddie Grundy and Lynda [Snell] on page 163, without mentioning the Archers on Radio 4, gives you a clue.

Shed Manual: Designing, building and fitting out your perfect Shed by John Coupe and Alex Johnson. Order online at More from the authors at and

For a look at light-hearted books on Sheds, see

The books by my bed

When I started writing this blog post some weeks ago, little did I think I’d have the time to do some serious reading! What follows is largely what I wrote then. The main difference is that I now plan to write short reviews of the books by my bed to share over the coming weeks while we’re all staying at home. 

What are the books?

As regular readers of my blog posts will know, I’m a lover of real books and enjoy reading almost as much as writing. My  reading is largely Influenced by author reputations; based on previous books I’ve read by them, and recommendations from other book lovers that I respect. There are currently 14 unread books by my bed

The books – the baker’s dozen

Top Five Regrets of the Dying Strangely uplifting given the subject matter (and the current Coronavirus crisis) this book started life as a blog and grew into a journal of the Australian author’s own life and learning as a professional end-of-life carer and house-sitter.–A-Life-Transformed-by-the-Dearly-Departing/23828296

Top Five Regrets of the Dying reviewed here

The Sentence is Death Crime writing at its best says the publicity, but I already know that Anthony Horowitz is a versatile and talented writer so I believe the blurb. I’ve particularly enjoyed his new Sherlock Holmes novels, and I expect this second title in his Daniel Hawthorne private investigator series will be equally entertaining.–A-mind-bending-murder-mystery-from/23639303

The Sentence is Death reviewed here 

Broken Vows; Tony Blair – The Tragedy of Power The unofficial biography of Tony Blair. Bought for 99p in a book sale and, given its size, it doubles as a doorstop from time to time when the bedroom window is open.–Tony-Blair-The-Tragedy-of-Power/19673554

Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us I like popular psychology books and a positive review by Malcolm Gladwell (one of my must-read authors) prompted me to order this probably a year ago. I’ve got to page 61.–The-Surprising-Truth-About-What-Motivates-Us/21901101

Duane’s Depressed given/lent (can’t remember) to me by brother-in-law (author of Nobody of any importance – see below) a fan of Larry McMurtry, who also wrote The Last Picture Show and Texasville, and other American authors. I see I made it to page 116 first time around…

How to be alive: A guide to the kind of happiness that helps the world Already people are talking about how our world might (or might not) be changed forever when the Coronavirus pandemic is over. This book is apposite in that context. I bought it, got to page 184, then my daughter borrowed it to read (she’d read the author’s previous book No Impact Man) But that was a while ago, so I think I’ll have to start again!–A-Guide-to-the-Kind-of-Happiness-That-Helps-the-World/19419158

Nobody of any importance This book is written by my brother-in-law and is his late father’s recollections (written and verbal) of frontline action in World War One. It’s a great work of love and dedication – self-published and sold in aid of the British Red Cross.

One Hundred Years of Solitude This book gets my award for ‘most-appropriately-titled-Coronavirus-reading’ (alongside Love in the Time of Cholera by the same author). A gratefully received recent gift which, given my past life in publishing on Latin American affairs, is wholly appropriate. A book I’ve been meaning to read for many years (but not 100).

Rethink: The surprising history of new ideas Author Steven Poole writes on ideas, culture, language and society. I share his love of words and I’m interested in creativity, so that was the attraction when I bought the book (a couple of years ago…)–The-Surprising-History-of-New-Ideas/20530224

The Last Landlady This was an impulse buy, except it wasn’t; I paid for the book but didn’t receive if for another 18 months or so. You see, publication was crowd-funded and the campaign must have come to attention at the right time. As a book and pub lover it was particularly appealing so I happily paid over the odds. The book is described as a memoir of the author’s grandmother – a landlady – and a social history of pub life.–An-English-Memoir/23910248

The Snowman Author Jo Nesbo has millions of fans worldwide and my brother-in-law (another one) is one of them. I was given this book as alternative holiday reading (I usually take the latest Lee Child or John Grisham blockbuster). My bookmark tells me I made it to page 17 when I last picked up the book last summer.–Harry-Hole-7/16453092

Tickbox Written by David Boyle who I’m admired for many years as a thinker (and writer) and known through our shared involvement in Timebanking when it was new to the UK. He writes on diverse subjects – I think he’s essentially an economist (he’s a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation) and has written the wonderful Little Money Book, but I also enjoyed his book Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life more than 15 years ago.

Upstream: How to solve problems before they happen A new offering from one half of a writing team of two brothers (Dan and Chip Heath) who author intriguing popular psychology type books. I can recommend Made to Stick: Why some ideas survive and others die and The Power of Moments: Why certain experiences have extraordinary impact.–How-to-solve-problems-before-they-happen/24555849

The 14th book in the photo (spine to the wall) will be my last read – if necessary – when I’ll reveal what it is, if I do read it.

Why do they remain unread?

Despite 4-day weekends, I can’t find/ don’t make enough time for reading for pleasure. Luckily, I don’t have any problem getting to sleep at night or staying asleep, so no reading in the wee small hours. You’ll notice I’ve started quite a few of them, so maybe that says something about my inability to stick with reading books a bit at a time – I need a long run-up like when I’m on holiday. I’m also a slow reader.  The magazine you see on top of the pile of books – Private Eye – is another reason I don’t get through books; I’m too busy reading that (I’ve been a subscriber for decades).

Another reason I have so many unread books is… shameless plug; I can’t resist the ease of ordering online through Hive Books (often cheaper than you-know-who and they support local independent bookshops Even when I’ve bought a book but not (yet) read it I don’t feel it’s a waste of money. For now my plan is to read the books by my bed, before adding to the pile.

Once the books are read, some will stay in our house (‘too many’ says my wife) , others will find their way to my little library (outside and/or charity shops, or will be given as gifts to friends (Man Walks into a Pub–A-Sociable-History-of-Beer-Fully-Up/783549 being a recent example)

Do share details about your own bedside reading – ideally with a short review!

Related blog post:                     


Now you have no excuse – review article

I’ve followed Jen Gale’s wise words on being green since, what I’ve recently learnt, was her first public-speaking engagement – a TEDx talk in Bedford in July 2013 which she describes as ‘terrifying’. I was part of the group organising the TEDx event and as well as introducing me to Jen, it also sparked an ongoing interest in TEDx events around the East of England (including speaking at one of them which, I can confirm, is terrifying!)

As well as an interest in TEDx Talks and sustainable living, I also have a passion for real books (for details check out a blog post in the ‘My love affair with…’ series). This interest includes 15 years in book marketing and sales and explains my addiction to buying printed books, some of which end up in the Little Library outside our house. So, when I saw that Jen Gale had written The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide I couldn’t resist being consumer(ish) and I bought a copy.

Being a grumpy old pedant, I notice it’s not printed on recycled paper, but it’s ‘responsibly sourced’ and, since I refuse to read e-books, that has to be good enough. If you don’t know already, you’ll soon learn that trying to ‘do the right thing’ when it comes to behaving sustainably it’s often not straight forward. Try looking at the relevant carbon footprints of plastic, paper and cotton bags.

What I like about the Sustainable(ish) Living Guide is that it doesn’t pretend there are easy answers, but it does address the common concerns that I suspect many of us share. To quote from the book’s introduction… ‘This is for you if you’re worried about the state of the planet, but you’re just not sure where to start or what to do… It’s for you if you feel a kind of low-level guilt about the things you do every day, knowing that there is a better way, but you’re up to your eyes in work and family and life stuff, and it doesn’t feel like there’s the time or energy to make big changes.’

But here’s the good news – all effort, however small, is worthwhile and Jen Gale’s guide provides an abundance of (jargon alert) quick-wins that won’t involve a radical change to the way you live nor having to find more hours in the day to make an impact.

And she doesn’t just cover day-to-day living. My love of books attracted me to one idea for an alternative advent calendar – involving books – and, similarly, Jen’s ideas for more ethical Valentine’s Day presents reminded me about the idea of giving family and friends ‘a blind date with a book’, bought from a charity shop and wrapped (in newspaper of course).

Charity shops cropped up again in a section about how many donations, however well-intentioned, end up in landfill because clothes are unwearable or toys and equipment are broken. This got me thinking… could volunteer repairers in Repair Cafes (also commended in the book) team up with local charity shops to fix donated items – increasing income to those charities and, of course, saving stuff from landfill. So, the book has already helped me make connections!

If this book does nothing else, I think it gives the reader hope, and ideas, and some answers. What is comes down to is that each one of us is personally more powerful than we might imagine. And it’s not all about costing more; many of the actions to save the planet can actually save us money. When we do have to spend, we have choices about where and how we do this. We have no local bookshop where I live, but by buying The Sustainable(ish) Living Guide online from Hive Books, I support a company that pays it’s taxes and gives a share of the purchase price to my nominated independent bookshop.

My make do and mend year – Jen Gale TEDx Talk

Buy the book–Everything-You-Need-to-K/23879824

Visit the website

My love affair with books

In the last three weeks I’ve read a John Grisham bestseller (Camino Island) and been to see a stage play (84 Charing Cross Road) both set in the world of bookselling, which partly explains this blog.

But books (and I mean real books) have played an important part throughout my life.

I grew up surrounded by books – my parents were both avid readers and book buyers; we hardly needed to heat our house as the walls were so well-insulated with shelves of books. I inherited from my parents a reluctance to get rid of books once read, and the Little Library outside our house today is the way we currently share unwanted, but not unvalued, paperbacks with passing readers.

Professionally, I spent the first 17 years of my so-called career selling books around the world – by direct mail, to bookshops and distributors, and at events. This was the heyday of ‘alternative’ ‘radical’ ‘community’ bookselling. It was (still) the days of the Net Book Agreement – before discounting and downloading from the internet changed everything to book prices and any sense of a level playing field. Even in those days – nearly 20 years ago – they were talking about the death of the printed book but here we are in 2018 and that’s still not the case.

When we first arrived in Royston – a market town of 15,000 people – we had two bookshops, now we only have a very niche bookseller and, Tesco, if you call them a bookseller. The nearest independent bookshop is 12 miles away (whom I support by ordering my books online through Hive who make a small % donation from each sale to my nominated bookshop).

On the subject of real books, you’ll not be surprised to hear that I’m a fierce opponent of e-readers. Yes – they are great for storing and reading hundreds of books the instant you want to read them on a device the size of a slim paperback. Yes – they save the trees that go into making printed books (but use other precious, less recyclable resources). Yes – I’ll probably have to get one when my eyesight needs large print, but, but, but…

My dear old mum used to go into bookshops, open a hefty new hardback and sniff inside the spine. I don’t know whether this was a version of glue-sniffing, but you can’t do that with a Kindle.

Shedloads – a gift list for book (and shed) lovers

There are lots of jokes about a man’s relationship with (his) garden shed. Much is jovial and harmless banter, some has a more sinister undertone; the isolation and escape of a garden shed is not always ‘a good thing’.

This selection of books is a bit of fun for Christmas and beyond. Tossing the odd shed fact – mostly trivia – into a conversation can also be a useful opening for talking about Men’s Sheds – communal workspaces that are keeping men healthier and happier for longer – one of my passions (see

Fifty Sheds of Grey

‘Hurt me!’ she begged, raising her skirt as she bent over the workbench. ‘Very well,’ I replied, ‘You’ve got fat ankles and no dress sense.’ Colin Grey’s life was happy and simple until the day everything changed – the day his wife read THAT book. Suddenly, he was thrust head-first into a dark, illicit world of pleasure and pain. This is the story of one man’s struggle against a tide of tempestuous, erotic desire and of the greatest love of all: the love between a man and his shed.

A Hut of One’s Own: How to Make the Most of Your Allotment Shed

Allotments are places to grow food, but they are so much more than that. They are also places that encourage spontaneity, exploration, learning, sharing, restful activity and camaraderie. This illustrated book is a celebration of the allotment hut – their architecture and design, their uniqueness.

Men and Sheds

One of the more arty titles on offer here – striking black and white photos and a running commentary feature men and their sheds in a variety of guises. From a workshop of strange inventions, to a chapel and the home of a milk bottle collection, to a cinema. I like it because the men and shed get equal billing and the personalities of both shine through.

101 Things to do in a Shed

Published in 2005, by design this little gem has a much older feel about it from the use of rough paper with brown tint (light sepia?) to the simple Look & Learn style line drawings. There really are a wide range in the 101 project ideas contained within 128 pages. Members of The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead can confirm its status as a how-to handbook if you make some allowance for instructions and illustrations that don’t always tally with each other. But such shortcomings add to the charm of this ideal stocking-filler for dads and lads.

A Shed of One’s Own

The sub-title for this book – midlife without the crisis – is a giveaway that this book is not really about sheds but more an amusing survival guide for men at an age and stage at which a shed for escaping to becomes increasingly appealing.

This is for you if you show symptoms such as shouting at the radio, getting angry about littering, and developing a passion for trousers with elasticated waistbands. It’s probably not for you if you’re trying to buy a Shed.


Written by a man with a mission – to convert the world to the delights and convenience of working at the bottom of the garden in a ‘shoffice’. This is part architectural guide, part tour of famous sheds, part how-to handbook, and part supplier catalogue. Illustrated throughout with full colour photos, this is a beautiful book for coffee tables everywhere (including in sheds).

The Joy of Sheds

Another tongue in cheek collection of facts and figures (some famous, like Edvard Greig, Snoop Dogg, David Gilmour of Pink Floyd fame) associated with sheds around the world.

A selection of headings for short chapters give you the idea: Sheds in Music; Sheds at the Movies; Shed Art. One of the most intriguing chapter headings is ‘Hidden in a Shed’ which demonstrates the fact that they can harbour pretty much anything and everything.

The Shed

An early addition to the Ladybird Books for adults series. Well observed and a stupidly simple idea to appeal to people of an age to remember the originals. The idea – take the cover picture add a text that says “Using your shed as an office is called shedworking. Bunny works from his shed. He is a freelance cow-whisperer. At least that’s what he tells his wife. Bunny is unemployed” If you’re giggling, this is one for you.

All books (except Shedworking) are available online through Hive Books (

Hive are recommended for three reasons: their books are often cheaper than you-know-who; they pay UK taxes and, importantly, they support local bookshops. As someone who spent the first 15 years of his working life in book publishing this is important to me.