Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney

In many ways the back-story of this book is more interesting than the book itself. Memoirs of a Master Forger was not written by William Heaney but by Graham Joyce, the author of a string of fantasy novels over the last 20 years. When it was released, in 2008, the author's true identity was not made public.

Some time ago I stumbled across a blog post by Joyce in which he explained that the success of the novel had been somewhat galling. It had better reviews than Joyce's previous work and went into reprint in its second week - a feat that none of his other books had managed. Joyce wrote: "It confirms some rather worrying trends in publishing."

Would this book have been just as successful if it had been released under Joyce's name? He thinks it is unlikely. Without any preconceptions about the author, critics and booksellers had to take William Heaney's 'debut' at face value. A new Graham Joyce novel has critics digging through the old reviews and booksellers reaching for the previous sales data.

It is a fascinating experiment but I found the book itself to be unremarkable. William Heaney, the central character and supposed author, is a borderline alcoholic who works for a youth organisation and, in his spare time, sells forged books and donates the proceeds to charity. He also either sees demons or has a mental illness that leads him to believe that he does.

The demons have been around since a distressing incident at college, which is recounted in flashback. The donations to charity are, in some ways, an act of penance for what happened when he was younger. They are also partly driven by the fact that Heaney is, despite the criminal activity, a kind and decent person.

William's wife has left him and the separation has caused tension between him and his children. He falls into a relationship with a younger woman, Yasmin, though he feels uncomfortable at the age gap and her pursuit of him. For things to work out, William will have to confront his demons.

Do you see what Joyce has done there? He'll have to confront his demons. His demons. Yes, the metaphor is a little heavy-handed.

Joyce says that the book contains a critique of the publishing industry. There is a satire of British Council-supported poetry and, obviously, the novel is filled with fake books as well as - apparently - a demon that lives in a manuscript. It doesn't really amount to a critique, though.

The problem is that this is part thriller, part romance and part satire but doesn't fully convince as any of those things. The threads about demons and forgeries seem to be building towards a tense conclusion that never arrives. Instead, everything is tied up with very little trouble. So much for the thriller.

The romance, too, is pretty simple. Two likeable people want to get together and there are no significant obstacles to that. Jolly good. And the satire just isn't sharp enough.

Nevertheless, Joyce writes very well and Heaney is an amusing, interesting character whose observations are often enjoyable.

The Games That Changed The Game by Ron Jaworski (Shane's book 40, 2011)

Ron Jaworski was an NFL quarterback for more than 15 years. He spent the bulk of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles and took them to their first Super Bowl. These days he is an analyst on Monday Night Football.

In this book, Jaworski looks at seven NFL games that he believes represent important moments in the tactical development of the sport. He gives the background to the coaches and players involved and then examines the film of the game to explain how the tactical innovation in question played out.The tactical to-and-fro of an NFL game is what makes the sport so absorbing for me and Jaworski captures it perfectly here. There is a narrative to an NFL game that isn't always apparent, even to seasoned observers, and this book does an excellent job of making those narratives clear.

Jaworski explains, for example, that coaches don't always pick plays because they expect to score with them, or even gain a lot of yards. He writes:

"An offense will run plays that you know aren't going to pick up much yardage, but you have to run them to set up another play for down the road. You run certain plays to see how the defense reacts. You show certain fomations to help a quarterback understand how defenders will line up against that formation."

It's here that Jaworski's experience as a quarterback becomes relevant. He has been on the field and played the game at the highest level. When he tells you what it's like to try to read a defense or to attempt to avoid a pass rush, you can trust that he knows what he's talking about.

Using a specific game to explain a tactical innovation is slightly forced because in almost every case the tactics under consideration did not suddenly appear, fully-formed, in one game. They were developed over a series of games - or even over years. However, the advantage of this approach is that makes very clear how the tactics work in practice.

Jaworski's play-by-play is frequently riveting. At times, he manages to create the excitement of watching the game itself. The only downside was that I wanted to watch the tape while I read his analysis. This can be done with enhanced ebooks and it's to be hoped that publishers will try to sort out the licensing deals to make that possible in future.

There are also lots of brilliant anecdotes in amid the description. Jaworski explains how Sid Gillman consulted a maths professor to work out geometrically where each receiver should be on the field so that the ball would be in the air for the same amount of time, whichever one the quarterback passed to.

There are some wonderful quotes too. Here's Jim Otto, the Oakland Raiders center:

"At the end of one run, Joe Greene cussed me out, then kicked me square in the testicles - and I've never forgotten that. I didn't think that was very nice."

Some of the tactical developments that Jaworski covers here were so significant that they changed the type of players that teams looked for. In some cases, they even resulted in rule changes by the league, because a new idea tipped the balance of the game too far towards the offense or defense.

Though Jaworski has two co-writers on this book, the writing and editing are often poor. There are exclamation marks all over the place, for example, which is irritating. And it's repetitive: occasionally you'll read a sentence that repeats, almost a word-for-word, one from a few pages earlier.

Though it would be nice to have better prose, that isn't the selling point of a book like this. It's all about the expertise and Jaworski has buckets of it. This is a book that will deepen your understanding of the game. An essential for every fan.

Super Crunchers by Ian Ayres (Shane's book 39, 2011)

This is one of those books that feels like a good, long magazine article that has been expanded beyond the range of the material. Other examples include The Long Tail, Freakonomics and anything by Malcolm Gladwell. Indeed, Gladwell is probably the apotheosis of the form: his books feel like over-extended articles; his articles feel like over-extended anectdotes. [amtap book:isbn=0719564654]

Ayres at least has an interesting story to tell. The rise in the practice of analysing large data sets is changing the way many areas of our lives work, from finance to medicine, shopping to wine criticism. These changes are profound and although they will help us to make better decisions, they will also make a lot of people uncomfortable, not least those who consider themselves experts.We meet a man who created a formula for predicting the quality of wine years before it became drinkable and a man who has developed a computer programme that takes a person's symptoms and generates a comprehensive list of possible illnesses.

What Ayres calls 'super crunching' works by taking a set of criteria - a list of symptoms, for example - and checking it against a massive data set, such as a list of known medical conditions, to generate results that would have been almost impossible to produce manually. Various statistical techniques, such as regression analysis, are used to determine which criteria are relevant to the required outcome and these can then be assembled into a formula.

Obviously, this is the same role performed by a doctor, who uses training and experience to assess symptoms and make a diagnosis. However, human beings a not perfect reasoning machines. We tend to overestimate the significance of coincidences, for example, and to assume that patterns we have seen before will repeat themselves.

Computers don't do that. They deliver results based purely on the data. Of course, that means they are only as good as the data they are given and the criteria by which they assess it. Ayres makes clear that determining the factors to measure is still a job for a skilled human, as is deciding how to act on the results.

For example, it's possible to determine the likelihood that a convicted criminal will re-offend. Does that mean it is reasonable not to release those who have a high likelihood of re-offending? Most people would say no. Since all we can determine is a likelihood, we would be keeping locked up some people who would not have re-offended and that would be unfair.

Nevertheless, Ayres shows how some are using the results of data analysis in ways that most of us would consider to be unfair. Retailers are increasingly realising that they can determine how much a shopper would be willing to pay. That means instead of offering everyone the same price, they will charge each customer as much as they can get away with. If you demonstrate that you don't mind paying high prices then you can expect to be charged accordingly. The only answer, Ayres says, is for consumers to educate themselves.

Ayres has lots of examples but over 272 pages his material wears thin and he ends up repeating himself. Once you understand the concepts at work here, it doesn't really require an entire chapter to detail how the concept applies to a different field.

Furthermore, Ayres's central concept is a little fuzzy. There is no precise definition of 'super crunching'. When does mere 'crunching' become 'super'? When the data set is of a certain size? When it's done by a computer? Ayres doesn't give a clear answer because there isn't one. The form of these kind of non-fiction books requires Ayres to act as if we have just passed a pivotal moment in history, when in fact these techniques have been progressing over many decades and will continue to do so.

Still, Ayres is very readable and the subject is fascinating. Those who enjoyed Freakonomics or who are intrigued by the idea that statistically analysis can uncover 'hidden truths' should give this a read.

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre (Shane's book 37, 2011)

The only Le Carre books I had read, before this one, were his classics from the 60s and 70s: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and the Smiley Trilogy. This is a more recent work, which deals with the espionage world as it today, with the Cold War a distant memory and terrorism the new threat. [amtap book:isbn=0340977086]

When Issa Karpov, a young Chechen with links to Islamist terrorists, arrives in Hamburg, he immediately draws the interest of the intelligence services. The Germans are keen to erase memories their failure to detect the Hamburg-based group that plotted the September 11 attacks on the US. They want better intelligence sources to help spot future plots.

The British, meanwhile, are interested because of Karpov's father, who was a Russian officer. Lurking in the background are the Americans, who want to use extraordinary rendition to remove Karpov to their own facilities to find out what he knows.

These forces largely play out in the background as Le Carre focuses his attention on Tommy Brue, who runs a British family bank in Hamburg, and Annabel Richter, the human rights lawyer who represents Karpov.

Karpov's father was a customer of Brue's bank and Richter hopes that the money the bank owe's to Issa can be used to keep him out of the hands of the intelligence services and give him legal status in Germany.

Le Carre's central trio, Brue, Richter and Karpov, are all well drawn. Brue, cuckolded, estranged from his daughter and laden with guilt over the customers his father brought to the bank, sees Issa as a chance for redemption. Richter seeks to make amends for a previous case in which she believes that she failed.

Issa, meanwhile, is harder to read. Angry and vulnerable, determined to be a devout Muslim but unsure what that means. He ricochets between those who seek to help him and those who would harm him.

The supporting cast are a little more cliched, particularly Gunther Bachmann, the German intelligence man who leads the operation to find Karpov. He's a tough, charming workaholic who doesn't respect authority or play by the book. The kind of character you've seen in dozens of spy novels, in other words.

Le Carre moves the pieces of his plot into place slowly, before the whole thing snaps shut abruptly. The ending is so abrupt, in fact, that it feels a little unsatisfying. A chapter expounding on the conclusion would have been welcome but it would also, perhaps, have undermined Le Carre's point. It's hard to say more without giving away the ending but the way that Le Carre closes the book puts the reader in a similar position to the characters.

Like a lot of Le Carre's work, this is a very moral book. Once again, he shows how individuals can be helpless victims in the face of an espionage complex that ruthlessly pursues its larger objectives.

This isn't in the same class as the other Le Carre novels that I've read but it is an engaging book that tells a powerful story.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and All About Steve by Fortune Magazine (Shane's books 36 and 38, 2011)

Originally planned for release next year, Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs was brought forward after the Apple founder and former CEO died in October. Isaacson interviewed Jobs more than 40 times in the last years of his life and spoke to Jobs's friends, former colleagues and to key figures at Apple. This kind of access to the man and his company is unprecendented, given that both are known for their secrecy. [amtap book:isbn=1408703742]

The result is a book that those with a casual interest in the technology world will find informative. However, technology experts, particularly those who follow Apple closely, will be disappointed. There are scattered technical errors and assertions by Isaacson that betray his lack of expertise but mostly the problem is that he hasn't really uncovered enough that is new.

Shortly after Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple, in August this year, Fortune magazine released a compilation of its articles about Jobs and Apple. I was halfway through it when Jobs's death was announced in early October.

The Fortune anthology, All About Steve, is a treasure trove. It covers Jobs's time with Apple in the 70s and 80s, his 'wilderness years' nurturing Pixar and NeXT, and his triumphant return to Apple. What's particularly fascinating is that, because these articles are presented as they were published at the time, it's possible to test their predictions against what actually happened. It's a vivid demonstration of just how often Jobs's visions of the future turned out to be correct.

If you read the Fortune anthology and Wired's more recent ebook, Steve Jobs: Revolutionary, you'll learn just as much about how Apple's products were developed as you would from reading Isaacson's book. Indeed, having read both shortly before reading Isaacson, I was struck by how much the biographer had drawn from them.

The Fortune articles offer lots of detail on the early years of Apple. The company, just making a name for itself, was less secretive then and as time has passed more people have told their story of working on the Apple Lisa, the Apple Mac and the company's other groundbreaking products.

Isaacson repeats a lot of the stories from those Fortune articles and others that Apple followers will already know from other books, blogs and websites. He offers lots of detail on areas that have already been widely covered elsewhere but as the book moves towards the present day, there are fewer details of life inside Apple.

Less has been published about Apple's more recent products - though Wired's iPhone article is excellent - and as a result Isaacson has less to offer. It really appears that, on the product side of things, Isaacson did not uncover much new information. It's not clear whether that's because he wasn't interested or wasn't able to get the answers.

What you do get from Isaacson is more detail on Jobs's private life and his personality. Asked why he consented to the book, Jobs told Isaacson: "I wanted my kids to know me." To this end, there is a lot about Jobs's childhood, particularly his relationship with his adoptive parents. We get lots of details of his faddish eating habits, his interest in meditation and occasional sections on his romantic life.

The man that emerges is fascinating but also hard to like. Jobs was controlling, manipulative and could be savagely cruel. Most bizarrely, he was prone to breaking down in tears when things didn't go his way. This continued well into his adult life; he even cried when he was told that the original iMac would have to have a CD tray, rather than his preferred option - a less intrusive CD slot.

Jonathan Ive, Apple's design chief and one of Jobs's closest colleagues, tells Isaacson:

"But there are times, I think honestly, when he's very frustrated, and his way to achieve catharsis is to hurt somebody. And I think he feels he has a liberty and a license to do that. The normal rules of social engagement, he feels, don't apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone. And he does that."

And yet, time and time again Isaacson talks to former colleagues who say that working with Jobs was the best time in their career. His former girlfriends acknowledge that he could frequently be difficult and unreasonable and yet they speak fondly of him. Jobs's enormous charisma appears to have been enough to balance the unpleasant side of his personality.

Isaacson gives comprehensive coverage of the cancer that ultimately killed Jobs. At times it made for harrowing reading but Jobs's determination to continue his work despite the disease was admirable. The story Isaacson tells of Jobs in hospital, rejecting the oxygen mask he was being given and demanding to see alternatives, demonstrates just how obsessed the man was with perfection in design.

Given the time that Isaacson spends on Jobs's cancer it's noticeable that the book moves almost straight from his resignation as Apple CEO to his death. It seems clear that there wasn't time for Isaacson to write much about Jobs's last days before the book's release.

That sense of the book being rushed is apparent every now and again in the text. Names are mis-spelt, for example, and quotes are repeated in different chapters. Delaying the book might have given time to fix those mistakes and also would have allowed Isaacson to cover the tributes to Jobs, from family, friends and colleagues.

Overall, this isn't a bad book. Those starting with little knowledge of Apple will find most of what they need here. However, readers who know Apple - and I imagine they would be a significant audience for this book - will be letdown. Isaacson could, and should, have done better with this book.