‘Not My Kinda Book’

Score: 2/5

No, I did not enjoy this book. It’s one of those rare occasions that I was really keen to finish the book so I could move on to a book I’d enjoy more. If I’m reading a book I enjoy, I never want it to end.

It’s not the worst book I’ve ever read (thankfully books that get 1/5 are a rarity) but it certainly wasn’t fun.

Imagine someone taking all about the prospect of a mission to Mars, and making it dull.

Or, imagine delving deeply into the thoughts and actions of a bunch of dislikable people you don’t really care about.

Or, imagine the very basic things you’d have done in their situation which would kinda destroy the premise of the book

OK, some people really love this book. Really, really love it. And that’s fair enough - good for you, if you’re one of them! It’s just really not my kind of thing. So if you’re taste in books aligns with mine, you might be better skipping this one. If everything I type is anathema to you, this may be your kind of book.

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‘Ghosts With Local Colour’

Score: 3/5

Well, this is an odd one for someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts.

I first heard about this book last year when a friend in $WORK mentioned it. Even though I was born and raised in Belfast, I’d never heard of the book itself or the story around it. Maybe it’s because the time of the events was 1989 when I was at university meant it passed me by (although I think I’d have been back in Belfast for the summer break). Dunno. I’d never heard of it anyway.

And when someone mentions an intriguing book to me, my first action is usually to buy it. (Often this happens before I get to the ‘should I buy it’ or ‘will I ever read it’ stage.) And this is where I encountered a problem: I couldn’t buy this book.

Other options like eBay or just plain Google searches didn’t show up anything either, and @BelfastBooks told me the last copy he had he went for £150 a couple of years ago. That’s more money than I was willing to spend. There are mutterings about a PDF version in circulation, and then further mutterings from the family of the author asking that the PDF not be spread around, and then lots of dodgy piracy sites catching on to the search term and polluting all search results for the book (try it if you don’t believe me). I wouldn’t be comfortable downloading a dodgy PDF of a book anyway.

So I tried to find it in libraries:

So I tried to request it through the Norn Iron library system. And failed. Apparently this is one of the rare, special books that they have but don’t lend any more - I guess because it is so rare.

They did say I could request it be sent to a local library and I could read it there. I just wouldn’t be able to take it out of the building.

That was a good few months ago. It was only last week I figured I’d be able to dedicate some time to reading it in the library, so I put the request in then. It arrived in Carrickfergus library on Monday for me. Pretty fast service if you ask me!

So, on Wednesday I made it to the library to finally start reading this book, to find out what all the fuss is about.

Well, the fuss is about a purportedly true haunting in Belfast in 1989. The Skillen family were haunted by a ghost of a woman, and this spectre repeatedly physically attacked the author of the book, John Skillen. Priests and psychics were consulted, but the family were driven from their home.

It became well known as it was happening, with up to two hundred people gathering outside the house at times. And it made the radio and newspapers.

And I’d never heard of it.

Hmm. I don’t want to read too much into that - news was different back then, there were no Twitter alerts, no news web sites, and we usually didn’t get the papers. But still I wonder why I didn’t hear about it for nearly three decades.

It’s an interesting tale, certainly. And at 140 pages it’s quite a short one - it only took about two and half hours in the library to read it from start to finish.

It’s quite unpolished - a good editor would work wonders. But the tale itself is intriguing. I did keep wondering to myself what I’d have done differently. And I’m not sure it would have made any difference. I suppose the fact that I’m asking that question means I’m putting myself in the author’s position, so that means it’s quite relatable. Yeah, I could find a lot of it relatable.

I still don’t believe in ghosts though. I’m not going to try to offer explanations, but I’m sure others have and will. I did find it interesting.

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‘Firefly Fanfic, But Not’

Score: 4/5

I think this was another one of my Christmas Present books from Big Green Bookshop, courtesy of SWMBO.

It’s a nice science fiction tale. The basic setting reminded me a lot of Firefly - a collection of individuals working on an independent spaceship and so on. And it comes with the usual holes I often pick in science fiction (We have cameras and microphones just about everywhere today - do you really think there’ll be fewer in a couple of centuries? And do you really think inter-species politics would work that way? And we have such a variety in life, geography and sociology on the one planet we know about, so is it really a good idea to sum a planet up by a single characteristic?)

But putting that aside (as I pretty much always have to), it’s a fun book. Mostly. Bits of it (no spoilers) make me uncomfortable, and I’m not sure how much of that is just me. Hmm.

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‘Ghosts, Zombies, Exorcism, London’

Score: 5/5

The notion of an exorcist in modern London made me think this would be like the Dresden novels, but it’s much better than that. Something about the plotting, pace and characterisation lifts this to a higher level. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, and I’m looking forward to more in the series.

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‘Murder, Fraud In Ohio’

Score: 5/5

(Disclosure: this was a proof copy given to me by the fine folks at No Alibis, for no good reason as far as I can tell other than they’re great people who like other people reading books. It’s not like they know me or know I write stuff here.)

Female private investigator in Ohio gets confusing case. What’s not to love? What really made it enjoyable for me was the texture of the setting and the depth of character, in the main character at least.

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‘Fascinating, And Kinda Scary’

Score: 4/5

(Disclosure: this was a proof copy given to me by the fine folks at No Alibis, for no good reason as far as I can tell other than they’re great people who like other people reading books. It’s not like they know me or know I write stuff here.)

This book is filled with lots of stuff I’d never even considered about light. I suppose that’s its purpose, and it does it very well.

What surprises me most is how recent some of the discoveries it describes are. The discovery of ‘heat rays’ - we now recognise as infrared radiation - was in 1800! Just over two centuries ago! And that’s light that’s only just invisible, just a bit beyond red. X rays and gamma rays are more recent still.

Other facts are more terrifying to me. Like the statement that CT scans kills one in every two thousand people getting a scan. One in every two thousand! 0.05% of people! Why is there not more of an outcry? Well, it’s partly because it’s not an immediate thing - the figure comes from people who die from a cancer they wouldn’t otherwise have had if not for the CT scan, so there’s possibly a long lag between cause and effect, and it’s hard to look at any specific case and say that particular cancer is because of that particular CT scan.

But still - one in every two thousand?

I couldn’t find a source online to point to for corroboration of that figure. Well, I could find lots of sources and lots of figures and I’m in no position to judge the credibility of those sources or of this book. Scientific American says:

Several years after the blasts, researchers began tracking rates of disease and death among more than 120,000 survivors. The results demonstrated, for the first time, that the cancer risk from radiation depends on the dose and that even very small doses can up the odds. Based on such data, a 2006 report from the National Research Council has estimated that exposure to 10 mSv—the approximate dose from a CT scan of the abdomen—increases the lifetime risk of developing any cancer by 0.1 percent. Using the same basic information, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that 10 mSv increases the risk of a fatal cancer by 0.05 percent. Because these risks are tiny compared with the natural incidence of cancer in the general population, they do not seem alarming. Any one person in the U.S. has a 20 percent chance of dying from cancer. Therefore, a single CT scan increases the average patient's risk of developing a fatal tumor from 20 to 20.05 percent.

And there are often good reasons to get a CT scan too - sometimes it’s life saving. Finding the balance must be really hard and I’m glad I’ve never been in that position.

Other facts from the book are less terrifying. UV radiation from sun exposure may be overhyped, so the advice there is get as much sun as you can without burning. That’s quite different from advice I’ve heard over the last few years. But again, I’ve no idea how much credibility to place in the book or in other sources.

Still, it certainly made me think!

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‘Snappy But Confusing Dialogue’

Score: 4/5

One of the things people praise Elmore Leonard for is the dialogue he writes. I can see what they mean - it’s very snappy.

On the other hand, it’s very culture-specific. I thought I was pretty familiar with the US culture, the terms and slang used and so on, but bits of the wordplay left me scratching my head. I was usually able to figure out what was going on from the context but some things just weren’t clear to me.

The story itself seemed odd to me. I was expecting an overall plot but that’s not what the book does. Instead you get a series of cases, with some overlapping people. I’m not saying it’s bad, just it was unexpected to me. Maybe all Elmore Leonard books are like this.

I know it sounds like I’m griping a lot here but the book was good. Honest! The settings were vivid, the characters were large and small, the dialog was indeed snappy when I understood it. I may buy another once I get down my to-read pile a bit.

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‘Gets A Bit Preachy’

Score: 4/5

For Christmas SWMBO got me a subscription to Big Green Bookshop’s recommendations. It’s a neat idea - there are a lot of books out there and trustworthy recommendations can be hard to come by. (Don’t start me on the awful recommendation engines that seem to drive most of the internet these days.)

This was the first, and it’s a good one. From 2004, it’s surprisingly old - I think they go to the effort of tailoring their recommendations. It starts out well, bringing some simple cryptography into the plot, and it quickly escalates to bring more complex codes and ciphers into the plot.

Other strands involve working for a big company and growing up as a slightly odd young girl. I could certainly relate to some, but not all, of the problems. And of course the tension in the plot grew as I made my way through the book, but so did the preachiness. By the end it felt very preachy - that the author was less concerned about telling a story and more about pushing an agenda.

That’s a shame because there’s a lot to like about the book. Even the agenda might not be so bad if it wasn’t so in-your-face to the detriment of the story.

Oh, and there’s a mistake in one of the codes. I don’t know if it’s an accidental typo (it’s a simple transposition error) or if it’s deliberate to see if anyone is going to bother deciphering the codes in their heads (I did). I should probably check and see if there’s a reward or errata but if there was I’m sure it’s long-since claimed.

I did enjoy reading this book, though I’m not sure I’m ready for another book by that author yet.

I’m looking forward to the next book in my subscription.

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‘More Darkness In Exmoor’

Score: 4/5

I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s first book - Blacklands - when I read it last year. It was a No Alibis recommendation and I was in there again a while ago and made a point of seeking out her latest. (I also bought the recommended book Tall Oaks that day. I do like No Alibis and it even made the The Guardian today.)

This book is set in the same area - Exmoor - and there’s some overlap of characters from the first book. It’s still a standalone story, which I love - there’s no need to have read the first book to have read this, and it’s not really just one story spanning several ‘books’ to get more money from you (a personal bugbear).

I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first one though. Blacklands was a remarkable story in a terrific setting. The setting here is still great but the psychological thriller aspects just didn’t feel as real to me this time. I don’t want to spoil anything for you so I’ll shut up about that. It’s still a good book and well worth your time.

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‘Was Written For Me’

Score: 5/5

Talk about niche? This book is written for people who understand trading shares and forex, want to automate their trading, and are comfortable with Common Lisp and CLOS as the programming language.

There can’t be too many of them. Lisp has been enjoying some new popularity in recent years but it’s still not actually popular.

This may explain the price: £80 for the book on Amazon right now. It was pricey enough when I bought it, and that was a while ago - it’s a testament to my to-read pile that I bought this book in November 2013 and have only now read it.

It’s good at what it does too. It covers a lot of the basics around building an automated trading platform, with some useful ideas and recommendations that I can see would be hard-won. It doesn’t give you a trading platform written in Lisp, but it isn’t trying to - it’s using the code as a guide and a precise explanation rather than an actual tool for use. And that’s usually what I’d want anyway - text can be vague when code isn’t. (Code can be obtuse and obfuscated, but rarely is it vague.)

There’s less about trading strategies than I’d like. The book describes a few, and most importantly talks about back testing and forward testing strategies along with additional considerations like slippage and costs that aren’t necessarily taken into account during tests. That’s great. I’d still like to have seen more strategies though.

The nuts and bolts of automated trading 5 years ago is covered well. Some things are quite different now, but knowing the basics from this book should help.

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