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 Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (Shane's book 41, 2011)

Well, I finished The Man Without Qualities, which is more than its author managed to do. Robert Musil died in 1942, aged 61, a mere 21 years after he began writing this mammoth book. The published edition runs to more than 650,000 words and it's thought that the finished work would have been twice as long. I suspect that Musil would never have finished, even if he had lived until 81, or 101, or 181. The book would just have gone on and on and on.

There isn't much of a story here. Ulrich, the 'man without qualities', is disconnected from life. Having spent time as a poet, a soldier and, more recently, a mathematician, he has come adrift. His father suggests that he take a job as secretary to a count, which leads to his involvement in a committee charged with organising a celebration to mark the Austrian emperor's 70th anniversary.

The book is considered a 20th century classic, a modernist landmark to rank alongside Proust's The Remembrance of Things Past and Joyce's Ulysses. If you read James's 26 Books review, you'll find that this is his favourite novel. I'm afraid I cannot find the appeal at all.

This is a novel of ideas, a book about nationalism, morality, crime, justice, family, art, intellectualism, commerce, philosophy, militarism, sexual deviance, pacifism, mental health, society, the media and love. Had Musil lived, he would probably have gone on to cover umbrellas, chagrin and sausages too, for all I know. It's a book about everything and that's pretty much my problem with it.

The Man Without Qualities is like a map of the world in 1:1 scale or a gigantic photograph in which everything is in focus. It feels like there is no discernment. A work of art is more about what you leave out than what you put in and Musil seems unable to leave anything out. By attempting to say everything, he ends up not saying anything.

For 700 pages or so the book meanders. The long deliberations of the committee, which is led by Ulrich's cousin, are satirised mercilessly. Having established that the committee is foolish and peopled by fools, Musil then goes on to repeat the point in various ways for hundreds and hundreds of pages. I found it hard to care. There is no emotion to connect to, just a series of abstract intellectual ideas that are ultimately meaningless.

After about 800 pages the book becomes more compelling. Ulrich's father dies and he travels back home to settle affairs. There he meets his sister, Agathe, from whom he has been estranged for some time. They find a deep connection that draws them together and, since they are siblings, also makes them uncomfortable. Suddenly Ulrich seems to have found the meaning that he was looking for but it is forbidden to him. He and his sister are two halves that can never be properly whole.

The pair alter their father's will so that Agathe's husband is disinherited. Her marriage had been an unhappy one and she planned to leave him anyway. Ulrich becomes consumed with the question of whether their action was justifiable.

It's here that Musil's obsessive attention to the tiniest detail of intellectual process finally finds a worthy target. There is emotional weight to this dilemma. What Ulrich and Agathe have done is illegal but is it also immoral? That question finds a parallel in their relationship.

This is compelling in a way that a satire about a committee can never be, at least for me. About three hundred of the final four hundred pages in this book could be edited into a wonderful novel.

And what of the rest? I've tried to understand what people see in this book but I remain puzzled. The blurb on the back of my copy says: "There is scarcely a page that does not provide new thoughts or offer new insights."

It's certainly true that there are plenty of insightful passages and thought-provoking sections here but they are diluted amid the pages of detailed examination of nothing of consequence. Worse, Musil devotes equal time and energy to expounding ideas that are just nonsense.

Here's Arnheim, a wealthy German industrialist who worms his way onto the committee, considering money:

"And the same is true of morality: if our acts were unrepeatable then there would be nothing to be expected of us, and a morality that could not tell people what was expected of them would be no fun at all. This quality of repetitiveness that inheres in the workings of the mind and morality inheres also, and to the highest degree, in money. Money positively consists of this quality. As long as it keeps its value, it carves up all the world's pleasures into those little blocks of purchasing power that can then be combined into whatever one pleases. Money is accordingly both moral and rational; and since we all know that the converse is not the case, i.e., not every moral and reasonable person has money, we may conclude that money is the original source of these qualities, or at least that money is the crowning reward of a moral and rational life."

That "no fun at all" is wonderfully placed and is indicative of the frequent brilliance of Musil's writing. However, the argument itself is obviously nonsense. Of course money isn't a moral and rational force, any more than trousers or bassoons are. We can see the flaw in Arnheim's argument immediately. He's a fool - and given that he's supposedly a respected author, Musil is implying that Arnheim's readers are fools too. But why spend so long unfolding a worthless argument?

Every single character has these obsessive, laborious thought processes. In Ulrich's case, the ideas are most often interesting and illuminating, though by no means always. Other characters are almost always talking - or thinking - nonsense. At great length. It becomes tiresome very quickly.

There is no shortage of critics far more learned and well-read than me who will tell you that this book is a masterpiece. If you are curious then you should probably make up your own mind. I can't recommend it.

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.