Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the tag “Reading”

What I think of Dean Koontz

I was watching Odd Thomas, the adaptation of Dean Koontz’s novel starring Anton Yelchin, on Netflix and realised I haven’t read a Koontz novel in years. The last one I remember reading was Night Chills, which I read as a child. Probably the closest I’ve come to reading a Koontz novel lately is watching the movie Phantoms.

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Odd Thomas was an enjoyable movie, a bit cheesy, but entertaining none-the-less. Same could be said of Phantoms. Even though I read Night Chills over 25 years ago, I can still vividly remember a lot of it because of the interesting take on mind control and what it could be used for. So it seems odd that after having had no bad experiences with Koontz’s novels (and movie adaptations) that I wouldn’t have read more of his work. I mean, he didn’t become the sixth highest paid author by accident. And how many other novels do I remember reading that long ago?

Could it be that “no bad experiences” doesn’t exactly act as a glowing recommendation? Is it just that I’ve written him off as an inferior Stephen King clone? Or is it that whenever I think of Dean Koontz I think of this scene from The Family Guy?

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Of course, Koontz isn’t the only author whose career I seem to have glossed over. It is easy to miss an author. With so many great books by so many great authors, the issue becomes one of hours per lifetime. I’ve long held that a lifetime of reading doesn’t amount to many novels read. Don’t believe me? Allow me to mathetise you:

  • Let’s use two averages 50 books per year and 100 books per year.
  • Assume average reading lifespan is between age 10 and 80 = 70 years.
  • Assume you only read any one novel once.
  • Assume that you aren’t tragically hit by a car and can’t read.
  • Thus, in a reading lifetime you can read between 3,500 and 7,000 books.
  • There were over 300,000 books published in the USA last year. Over 8,000 in my home country of Australia.

So we do have to be picky about what we read. You can’t just waste time slogging through a book you aren’t enjoying: that’s valuable reading life you’re wasting! Not to mention your poor brain being haunted by the experience. Glossing over authors who could possibly be entertaining me greatly in service of finishing that award winning novel literature professors deemed important, is madness. Dying knowing that you had read all of the Harry Potter books would be far more satisfying that dying from sheer boredom in the middle of War and Peace.

Reviews and recommendations obviously become very important here. Being picky about what you read has to come from good advice. That’s why I post reviews of books I’ve enjoyed. Hopefully I’ll help others find something to read that won’t make them regret paying money for. Movie adaptations are part of this recommendation process. Despite the movies always being worse than the book (except when they aren’t) you do get an impression of the book and whether it would be worth reading. I mean, nothing like taking 15 hours of entertainment and squeezing it into 2 hours to help avoid bad books. Odd Thomas recommended its source material enough to make me question my entire accidental Koontz avoidance. I Am Number Four made me erroneously assume you couldn’t write a worse book. The Bourne Identity made me question if they knew it was meant to be based on a book.

Maybe I should read Odd Thomas, or one of the other hundred odd novels Koontz has written. Maybe I should see if the author who managed to write something that lingers in my memory decades later is able to leave that sort of impression again. Maybe I should see how faithful the movie adaptation was and how suited Anton Yelchin was to the role. 

Or I could continue to avoid reading Koontz’s books. You know, whatever.

Book Review: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart (Reckoners, #1)Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn’t make much of a supervillain. My weakness is chocolate. And quality whiskey. And a beautiful guitar. And a great novel. And…. this would make a long list of things to kill me with.

Steelheart is the first book in the Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson. David was only a child when the Epics (supervillains) appeared. He also has a secret: he saw the greatest of the Epics bleed. The supposedly invincible and invulnerable Steelheart is now the Dictator of Newcago and David wants to avenge his father’s death at the hands of Steelheart.

After enjoying the Mistborn series I have been trying other Sanderson book series, expecting more great novels from him. I struck out with The Way of Kings, which could best be described as using 100 words when 10 would suffice, but Steelheart promises an exciting series.

Leaving aside the (acknowledged) improbable superpowers and raised middle finger to physics, the novel manages to be engaging and intriguing. In this David versus Goliaths tale there is plenty of suspense and fear that the heroes may not triumph. The series is intended as a Young Adult adventure, but YA is the new A must read, so don’t be put off by that.

Can’t wait to read the rest of the series and see how the handwavium works.

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Is sport king in Australia?

Sports Supporters: Alcohol Compulsory Accessory

Sports Supporters: Alcohol Compulsory Accessory

With pork-barrelling season in full swing, we will be seeing plenty of politicians hitching their wagons to prominent sports and sporting teams. The proclamations that sports are True-blue, dinky-di, Aussie will come to win over voters, with a little somethin’ somethin’ in the budget to sweeten the deal. Because sport is king in Australia, right?

Aussies are routinely described as sports mad, sports addicts, and that we love watching and playing sports in sporty sports ways. But how many of us actually play sports? How many of us actually watch sports? Given that you could describe weekly matches of football as repeats of the same teams doing the same thing for months on end annually, it is worth taking a look at a few of our assumptions about the claims.

Let’s start with a look at how many Aussies play “sports”. Inverted commas around sports? Yes, because when people say that 60% (11.1 million) of Aussies play sports – down 5% compared to 2 years previous – what they actually mean is that we’re classifying walking and generally not sitting on the couch watching TV as sport. Let’s make it fairer on sports and subtract the walkers from being classified as sport participants. And let’s not succumb to temptation and call golf just more walking with intermittent cursing. That means that our 11.7 million “sports” participants is suddenly 7.5 million, which is 41.4% of the population (and falling with the ageing population). That figure sounds impressive until you realise that figure is participation of at least once in the past year and doesn’t account for the regularity of participation. How regularly someone is involved in sports is a much better indicator of our interest and love of sports. As opposed to accounting for that time you went to the gym because of a New Year’s resolution or because the doctor ordered you too out of concern for being dragged into an orbit around you at your next visit. The reality is that less than half of the population engage in regular (3 times per week on average) physical activity, with roughly a third of those people being gym junkies (NB: young men are more likely to play a sport, that drops with age and isn’t replaced with other activities, whilst women are more likely to be involved in non-organised sports and remain doing so).

The Top 20 most popular physical activities are dominated by fitness activities like the already mentioned walking, aerobics/fitness, swimming, cycling, and running. One of the big name sports, AFL, ranks 16th on the list behind yoga. When yoga beats football for popularity it must only be a matter of time before the PM declares it the most exciting sport. For those wondering where rugby is on the list, the rest of Australia says ‘hi’.

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Of course, this is only looking at sports. How does sports participation compare to other activities? Well, ABS figures show that we spend roughly 23 minutes a day reading, versus 21 minutes on sports and outdoor activities (NB: this varies between genders and age groups). The US figures show similar results with more time reading than playing sports, but they also spend less of their day on both activities. So at least we are still better read and fitter than Americans in the low bar metrics.

Obviously sports aren’t all about participation and most would regard themselves as avid armchair sportspeople. It could be argued that the best way to stay injury free in sports is to participate from the comfort of the couch in front of the TV at home. The other option is to attend a sporting stadium dressed in clothes made from random assortments of gaudy colours to cheer on a team who are wearing similar clothes but are less inebriated. Or would the most appealing option be to go to a movie, concert or theme park? The correct answer is that people would prefer to attend a movie (59%), a concert (40%), or a theme park (34%). Live Comedy (31%) was more popular than Football (30%), Cricket (29%) and Rugby (25%).

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Of course, someone is bound to point to spectator numbers for AFL, A-League, and NRL that look very impressive. With average match attendances in the tens of thousands, and millions annually, sports are clearly important.

Competition Total spectatorship Average match attendance Year Ref
A-League 1,887,206 13,480 2013–14 [108]
Australian Football League 6,975,137 33,696 2014 [109]
Big Bash League 823,858 23,539 2014–15 [96]
National Basketball League 574,813 5,132 2013–14 [96]
National Rugby League 3,060,531 15,940 2013 [110]
Super Rugby 773,940 19,348 2012 [111]

At a glance the figures look mildly impressive, but much like enhancement pouch underwear, things aren’t nearly as impressive when you look at the attendance figures in the cold light of day.

Even if we disregard the doubling up and totalling of attendance occurring in the stats, it is easy to see that even the most popular sport in Australia would rank behind visiting Botanic gardens, zoos and aquariums, and libraries. They aren’t even in the same ballpark as cinema attendance. But we can go deeper on the reading, library and cinema figures, even getting frequency statistics so we can tell the difference between the people doing something “at least once” versus people doing something regularly in the past year. 47.7% of people are reading a book weekly, 70% of library attendees (mostly women) visited at least 5 times in the past year, 65% of Australians are (computer) gamers, and 65% of Aussies go to the cinema an average of 6-7 times a year. And yet sport has a segment in news broadcasts whilst reading, gaming, and parks and zoos battle to get media coverage. Technically if we wanted to be fair then the sport segment would be cut to make way for movie news and a live cross to the local library.

What about the economy? How much are households spending on sports? That’s a great question and a great segue into a discussion of how trickle-down economics doesn’t work in sports either. I mean, funding sports that way when it hasn’t worked in the economy must be a no-brainer, right? [Insert low IQ athlete joke here] Or we could stay on topic and discuss the $4.4 billion sports and physical recreation spend by households annually. Let’s not complicate things by talking about the buying of stuff like footwear, swimming pools, and camper vans. Seriously, camping is in the sport spending category? Either way, $4.4 billion sounds like a lot of money, until you realise that gaming is a $3 billion industry, and that households spend $4.1 billion on literature and $4.7 billion on TV and film.

We allow governments to spend a lot of money on big sports and big sporting events. Think that hosting the Olympics will encourage people to play sports? Nope. Actually, seriously, nope. One report described this idea as nothing more than a “deeply entrenched storyline”, sort of like a fairy tale handed down from one Minister for Sport to the next. Part of the problem is that we buy this narrative hook, line, and sinker, such that the sports themselves (and surrounding data agencies) never really bother to keep statistics to prove the claims. But they make for great announcements and ribbon cutting events on the election campaign trail, so the myth keeps on keeping on.

Ultimately the argument isn’t that sports are unpopular or bad but rather that we spend an inordinate amount of time pretending we like them far more than the reality. And that is impacting our elected officials more than a chance to wear a high-viz vest at a press conference. Maybe it is time to rethink what media and funding we throw at sports, and perhaps consider a gaming segment on the news.

So this pork-barrelling season look forward to the announcement of a new multi-million dollar yoga stadium in a marginal electorate near you.

Further reading:

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19407963.2012.662619
http://apo.org.au/files/Resource/Crawford_Report.pdf
http://www98.griffith.edu.au/dspace/bitstream/handle/10072/57329/91705_1.pdf
https://theconversation.com/we-need-abs-arts-and-sports-data-to-understand-our-culture-30255
https://theconversation.com/olympics-success-leaves-a-mixed-legacy-for-australias-sporting-life-7531
https://theconversation.com/will-the-olympics-really-inspire-more-people-to-play-sport-8913

 

Book Review: Snow Angel by Badger Jones

Snow AngelSnow Angel by Badger Jones
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

What if your Guardian Angel is watching you right now? Yeah, better close that other browser tab. You know the one.

Alex is a bum. His daily adventures revolve around stomping through the snow to buy the best “bang for buck” beverages after begging for money. And then he meets his Guardian Angel who is a huge fan of his lifestyle. Oh, and apocalypse. Gotta avoid another one of those.

In the interests of full disclosure, my friend Badger wrote this novel. He didn’t offer me financial, reciprocal, nor sexual favours for a favourable review: the bastard.

There is a lot to like about this novel. There is a hard reality to the main character’s life as the supernatural intrudes upon the tale. There is humour combined with a grittiness throughout. But I also found myself wanting the novel to advance a little faster. It wasn’t laboured, it’s actually quite fast paced, but it felt like I was having to sit still for too long as Alex wrapped his head around what was happening. Although, this is often the risk with the loser anti-hero; you can get annoyed at them.

In other words, give it a read.

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Book Review: The Promise by Robert Crais

The Promise (Elvis Cole, #16; Joe Pike, #5; Scott James & Maggie #2)The Promise by Robert Crais
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If a professional thief pretends to be a terrorist does that mean they blow all of their money in a public place?

Well, Elvis Cole would have found that funny. Bite me.

Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are back and this time they have been hired to investigate a missing person. Somehow that missing person leads to black market arms deals, murder investigations, Homeland Security mole hunts, thieves and terrorists. We also get to see some more of Scott James and his dog Maggie. Narration from the POV of the dog: go on, buy the book right now.

It has been a while since I’ve picked up a Robert Crais novel. I loved his early Elvis Cole novels but when he moved away from the humorous tone later in the series I lost interest. Fortunately I decided to check back in to see what was happening with Cole and Pike. This was a terrific read, with plenty of twists and turns, and is crammed full of interesting characters. The only negative I have is that the humour of the early novels is still taking a back seat. There are some Cole moments, but that aspect has been dialled right back, something I continue to miss with Crais’ writing.

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Book Review: Hell’s Super by Mark Cain

Hell's Super (Circles In Hell, #1)Hell’s Super by Mark Cain
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hell is being surrounded by famous people, apparently.

Hell’s Super follows Steve Minion, the only non-famous person in hell as far as I can tell, as he tries to fix all the problems that come up in hell. Whether it be replacing a broken light bulb on the sign leading into hell (Abandon all hope ye who enter here), or stopping a civil uprising, Steve is tasked with fixing the problem because he sucks at fixing things: it’s hell, it’s his punishment. His sidekick is Orson Welles and he is dating Florence Nightingale: enough said.

I picked up Mark Cain’s Hell’s Super as it promised to be a novel in the vein of Terry Pratchett or Good Omens: some satire, some straight laughs, some silly fun. It had those elements but for me it rarely rose above mildly entertaining. Having recently re-read Good Omens, a book Hell’s Super is compared to in the back cover blurb, I can safely say that the Pratchett and Gaiman novel is not being knocked off the Best Novel of All Time podium any time soon. Too much of the humour and plot relies on utilising famous people and irony (especially in the punishments) to be classed as Pratchett-esque satire and humour. It also didn’t help that the plot twists were obvious given the setting.

That said, this is an entertaining novel with enough humour to amuse. I think the comparisons drawn to Good Omens, Terry Pratchett, and Douglas Adams in the blurb set up too-high an expectation for me. Knowing that, you may enjoy it more as a result.

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Pen vs Keyboard: FIGHT!!

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For some reason the world of writers is filled with technophobic troglodytes intent on proving that their old-fashioned way of doing things is better. I’ve written previously about how older people’s favourite hobby since the dawn of time has been complaining about kids these days. This is also true of changes in technology, with people intent on justifying not learning to use a computer or e-reader. Because cutting down trees is the future of communication!

Once again I’ve stumbled across another article that misrepresents scientific studies to try and convince people that we need to clear forests, pulp them, flatten them into paper, cover them in ink, and act as snooty as possible. This time they – the nebulous they: my nemesis!! – are trying to pretend that taking notes with a pen is better than using a keyboard.

Ugh.

When will people learn that paper isn’t the medium we should be promoting? We need to be going back to scratching on rocks and cave walls. When was the last time a paper book lasted more than a hundred years out in the rain, snow, and blazing sun? That doesn’t even begin to compete with the longevity of the 50,000 year old cave paintings. Data retention for rock far surpasses the much inferior paper.

This isn’t the first article I’ve seen on The Literacy Site misrepresenting science. Hopefully they will acquire come scientific literacy soon and overcome their biases. If I turn blue and pass-out, try to act concerned. Let’s dive in.

New Research Explains How The Pen Is Mightier Than The Keyboard

It’s great when articles improve on the titles of science papers. I mean, who wants to read the science paper The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking? Pity that both titles misrepresent the actual findings. Also, is 2014 still regarded as new?

In her graduate assistant days, psychological scientist Pam Mueller of Princeton University used to take notes just like everyone else in the modern age: with a computer. One day, Mueller forgot her laptop and had to take notes the old-fashioned way. Rather than being held back by pen and paper, Mueller left class feeling as if she’d retained far more information than usual on that day. She decided to create a case study that could prove her hunch that writing longhand was actually better for comprehension than typing.

This is actually a good little story and illustrates how a lot of hypotheses are formed in science. This is the anecdote or observation that scientists want to turn into a hypothesis to create actual knowledge. But remember, this is an anecdote, which has as much value as used Easter egg wrappers that have been stuffed between the couch cushions. Putting anecdotal stories at the start of an article can set the audience up to not think too hard about the rest of the article, as you have given them the conclusion in a nice little story.

The study she created, published in Psychological Science, indicated that taking notes by hand is a more effective method than typing them on a laptop when it comes to processing information conceptually.

And here we jump straight off the rails, over the side of the bridge, and careen into the waiting river below. Sure, The Literacy Site is just quoting the press release, but that is lazy. The study itself has this line in the abstract that show how this claim is a misrepresentation of the findings:

We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

In other words, the findings were that people spend all their time typing and no time actually listening and comprehending the lectures. Because the pen is an archaic device that is unwieldy and slow compared to the keyboard, students using a pen only write down notes after they have listened, picked out the key points, and conceptualised that information into a note. But don’t take my word for it, the press release on the University of Michigan website has a few recommendations including:

  • To interrupt verbatim note-taking on laptops, break up your lectures with short activities that encourage deeper processing of information.
  • Have students use laptops or other technologies to process–not just record–information.

Now it is time to discuss the study details a little bit, because someone might be interested in the methods section. I’m sure those people exist. Somewhere. Interested is probably the wrong word.

In the first of a series of studies led by Mueller, 65 college students watched various TED Talks in small groups, and were provided with either pens and paper or laptops for taking notes. When the students were tested afterward, the results were overwhelming. While the groups performed equally on questions that involved recalling facts, those who had taken longhand notes did significantly better when it came to answering conceptual questions.

Sorry, I need to catch my breath. I’m so shocked at the massive sample size. This is definitely enough people to represent the rest of society. Conclude away I say!

Anyway, these overwhelming results are just a tad whelming.

Whelming error bars.

Whelming error bars.

As you can see the performance on retaining facts was the same, with error bars that suggest 65 people is probably not enough to draw conclusions from. Not that anyone would be trying to claim this study is proof of anything, right? The next thing you see is the benefits of using a pen…. as long as you ignore those error bars and just accept the p-value tells us something of value. Given that those error bars overlap for the two groups, I wouldn’t be drawing conclusions from a p-value. Also, I’m not exactly sure why an ANOVA was used when there were only two groups to compare. KISS principle applies to statistics as well.

Now the study realised that 65 people wasn’t enough, so they repeated the study with a few variations twice more. In the second and third tests they had 151 and 109 people take notes. Each test had the typists writing between 250 and 550 words, whilst the pen wielders wrote roughly 150 to 400 words. Interestingly the note takers were writing verbatim 12-14% with their laptop but the pen users only managed 4-9% verbatim. This shows why the conclusions I’ve quoted above were drawn.

Out of interest, here are the results from the other two tests that were more convincing for that conceptual finding.

Okay, this is more like it.

Okay, this is more like it.

The second test with 151 people were tested with pen, laptop, and laptop with a lecture from the tester about how they really should pay attention. With 50 people per group you’d hardly jump up and down about the significance of this test, but clearly telling people to pay attention doesn’t… hey look a squirrel.

squirrel

Methinks possibly the greater number of treatments has lessened this test's results.

Methinks that possibly the greater number of treatments has lessened this test’s significance.

The third test with 109 people again tested for pen vs keyboard, but this time they allowed revision of notes before being questioned. This makes the groups even smaller, and again I’d question the significance of such a small sample. But the researchers summed up the results with this erudite paragraph:

However, a more nuanced story can be told; the indirect effects differ for conceptual and factual questions. For conceptual questions, there were significant indirect effects on performance via both word count and verbatim overlap. The indirect effect of word count for factual questions was similar, but there was no significant indirect effect of verbatim overlap. Indeed, for factual questions, there was no significant direct effect of overlap on performance. As in Studies 1 and 2, the detriments caused by verbatim overlap occurred primarily for conceptual rather than for factual information, which aligns with previous literature showing that verbatim note taking is more problematic for conceptual items.

In other words, doing lots of writing, particularly just copying what was said verbatim, makes you suck at understanding what the hell is going on. Oh, and study before the test. Apparently it helps too. Made that mistake at university.

So back at The Literacy Site they are skipping the other tests and just heading to the conclusions:

Mueller found that this was the result of laptop users trying too hard to transcribe the lecture rather than listening for the most important information and writing it down by hand. It may be an era where computers have made handwriting seem useless, but Mueller isn’t the only believer in the importance of longhand.

Notice the nuanced difference that seeing all three tests provides? We could be led to believe that there was overwhelming evidence for the pen, but what we see is that note takers need to readdress their methods of taking notes. Or they could just wing it.

An article in TIME discusses Karin James, an Indiana University psychologist, who published a 2012 study indicating writing is particularly important in the cognitive development of pre-literate children five and under. While using a computer for note-taking in some situations makes sense, it’s important not to overlook the longhand method.

It’s great that the article tries to incorporate some extra research. Citing one study with a small sample size is hardly compelling, certainly not worth writing an article about. But again the research is being misrepresented:

…the benefits of writing: increased creativity, better critical thinking, boosted self confidence, and a correlated improvement in reading capability with writing prowess.

But are these benefits real? The short answer: Mostly not. “There’s lot of caveats in handwriting research,” says Karin James, a psychologist at Indiana University

Curse those damn caveats! Why can’t we have a control group of kids we don’t teach to read and write?!

Which brings me to a final point about these old technologies vs new technologies articles: stop jumping the gun! We’re in a transition phase. This isn’t 1970s velvet suits with platforms versus 2010s hipster atrocities. This is typewriter hipster texting on his phone. Technology is changing and we’re still learning how to use it properly. The studies that are cited in many of these articles have very limited scope, test very few people, and are comparing new and established things. Has anyone taught laptop users to take notes effectively for the new medium? Do you actually need to take written notes at all in this modern age? We need to see more science done on the changes taking place, and we need the articles discussing the science to do more than discuss (one study from) one paper, and highlight the limitations. Well, unless you have already made up your mind about a topic and just want some links to throw at people in an argument. Screw being right!

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Book Review: Storm Front by Richard Castle *nod*wink*

Storm Front (Derrick Storm, #4)Storm Front by Richard Castle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If a fictional bestselling author writes a bestselling book that refers to a fictionalised version of his fictional character, at what point does reality start gurgling down the drain?

Derek Storm and Xiangbang have uncovered a plot by a hedge-fund manager to ruin the world economy for financial gain. The hedge-fund manager has hired Storm’s presumed dead nemesis, Gregor Volkov, to aid his plans, i.e. Volkov is hired to kill the right people. Can Storm and Xiangbang stop the carnage and global economic meltdown?

Derek Storm is the super id and hero of the Richard Castle novels. Richard is the fictional author and lead character in the Castle TV show. Rather than have a novel tie-in for the show, Tom Straw has written a series of novels as though he was Richard Castle writing them. This entire series – of which I’ve only read a couple of instalments of – is written with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Case in point: there is one scene in this novel that has a crossover between the Nikki Heat and Derek Storm characters that then references the fictionalised versions of the Castle TV show. The exchange of “ruggedly handsome” compliments that flows between the various representations of Richard Castle is something Nathan Fillion’s character would definitely do.

It is hard to recommend this novel or any of the Richard Castle books without the caveat that they are meant to be cheesy to fit with the meta-humour and references to the TV show. If you aren’t a fan of Castle, or aren’t prepared for the style, this book and series would come off as hackneyed; I’ve seen other reviews suggest as much. So make sure you have your life-sized poster of Captain Mal (or is that Captain Hammer?) next to your reading chair to remind you that this is meant to be stupid-fun.

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Book review: The Only Pirate at the Party by Lindsey Stirling

The Only Pirate at the PartyThe Only Pirate at the Party by Lindsey Stirling
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The music industry has always run on Sex and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll!! But not for Lindsey Stirling.

The Only Pirate at the Party is Lindsey Stirling’s autobiography…. Okay, is it still an autobiography when you co-write it with your sister? That’s not like having a ghost writer, right? Anyway, this is Lindsey’s story about carving out a career in music her own way.

I’m not exactly someone who follows TV “talent” shows and their stream of supposedly talented winners, let alone the people who lose those “talent” shows. I guess you could say I prefer a different kind of music, one that isn’t aimed at generating money off of teenagers voting and selling them insipid cover versions of songs. So it is odd that I would stumble across a crazily good dubstep/electronica dancing violinist who was one of the failed contestants on America’s Got Talent (now there’s an oxymoron title). It was the incongruous appeal of Lindsey’s music that had me interested in her background and thus, this book.

Lindsey’s story of success is not only interesting, but deeply personal. She discusses all sorts of personal issues, such as her love of Jesus – as defined by a 19th century con man – and her battle with anorexia. The starkest moments come in the audiobook version when Lindsey talks about her longtime bandmate/friend Jason Gaviati. Between the time when the book was written and when the audiobook was recorded, Jason died of cancer. Like I said: deeply personal.

Even if you aren’t a fan of her music, there is a lot to be taken away from this story. Lindsey’s tale of success comes from hard work and making her own opportunities. And how can you not enjoy the music?

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Book Review: Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey

Leviathan Wakes (Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the first time I’m actually interested in what is in The Juice. I’m betting The Juice doesn’t contain oranges.

Leviathan Wakes is the first novel in The Expanse series and follows two protagonists, Jim Holden and Joseph Miller. Holden hauls ice – not that kind – for the colonies spread throughout the solar system. He and his small crew inadvertently start a war when their ship is blown up. Meanwhile Miller is a detective trying to find a missing rich girl. Holden and Miller’s paths cross and they have to stop a war, and something even more dangerous, from destroying humanity.

It has been awhile since I’ve sunk my teeth into a space opera. The impetus to do so came from the SyFy series The Expanse, the first season of which is based upon Leviathan Wakes. For the first few weeks of the show I was matching pace with the TV and novel, but have finally pulled in front with my reading. I can highly recommend both the show and the novel.

There is a lot going on in the novel: it touches on elements of many genres (noir, mystery, hard sci-fi, etc); it maintains a brisk pace/tension; has elements of social and political commentary (anyone else notice the WikiLeaks ethos reference?); and combines some interesting characters with an interesting plot. As such, this is one of the better sci-fi novels I have read. I’m starting Caliban’s War, the sequel, today.

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Book Review: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day

You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)You’re Never Weird on the Internet by Felicia Day
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Did you know that if you are gaming and say Felicia Day three times into the screen reflection Felicia appears behind you and shoots an arrow into your knee? I heard it on the internet so it must be true.

Memoirs and (auto)biographies are something I generally avoid like the port-a-loos at a music festival. But I make the occasional exception for people I find interesting and humorous. You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) certainly fits this bill, with Felicia sharing her rise from home schooled kid to the Queen of Geeks. I’m not sure if that title comes with lands and tithings or not.

One Xmas many years ago, my sister decided the family was going to watch Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. It was a Joss Whedon production, so there were no objections, at least none that would be taken seriously. There was Doogie Howser, and Captain Mal, and what did I recognise the redhead from? And geez she could sing. That was when I became a fan of Felicia’s work, and also the only reason I’ve watched any Supernatural episodes since the finale in season six. So it was great to hear – yes, the audiobook read by Felicia is the best way to read this book – her talk about her life, career, and how she decided to do what she loved on her terms.

I think the most important chapter in her book is the second to last that covers her thoughts on the dark side of the internet and gaming. As a former gamer I still take a passing interest in things going on the industry, and as a resident of the internet, I’ve taken an interest in that too. To say that guys are dicks to women who dare trespass on “their” turf is to completely fail to understand the level of harassment women endure in trying to enjoy what games and the internet have to offer. But it is worth buying this book just for this chapter.

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Book review: The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child

The Forgotten Room (Jeremy Logan #4)The Forgotten Room by Lincoln Child
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

One day I’m going to start a think tank and name it after a bodywash – possibly a shampoo – just like Lincoln Child did with his fictional institution, Lux.

There’s a problem in the west wing of the think tank Lux. No, it isn’t that their research is funded by special interest groups. No, it isn’t that they are neo-cons intent on bending governments to their policy wills. Lux has a slight problem with residents going crazy. So they contact Dr Jeremy Logan, a former resident and investigator who specialises in the extraordinary, to figure out what is causing the problems. That’s when they find The Forgotten Room and its contents.

Without realising it, I’ve actually read one of the other Jeremy Logan mysteries. The reason I didn’t realise I had read the first in the series (this being #4) was that Jeremy wasn’t the main character in Deep Storm. But much like Deep Storm, The Forgotten Room is a compelling mystery that hits all the right beats. Where Deep Storm was more techno/sci-fi based, The Forgotten Room has allusions to the supernatural whilst being more conventional. Where Deep Storm had a mysterious illness, The Forgotten Room has a mysterious illness. Where Deep Storm tried to kill off as many characters as possible, The Forgotten Room keeps the fatalities to a minimum. I don’t know why I’m comparing the two books in the series this much, probably because they seem to have the same general plot and feel to them. Although I do prefer the character of Logan to Crane.

As with all Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston books, you can be assured of an entertaining read. Whilst Logan is no Pendergast, he does make for an interesting character to follow as he unravels the mystery. But as with my review of Deep Storm, I did feel this book to be a little too “by the numbers”.

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Book Review: Moon Called by Patricia Briggs

Moon Called (Mercy Thompson, #1)Moon Called by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever wondered if werewolves are sexy? Apparently it isn’t just Rule 34 that has the answer on that question.

Moon Called is the first in the highly successful Patricia Briggs series. Mercy Thompson is the local mechanic, a shape shifter, and a lightning rod for trouble. First a runaway with problems starts work at her shop, bringing his problems with him. Then her friendly neighbourhood werewolves get dragged into the start of a civil war. And then it seems the local witches and vampires are involved. Then Cthulhu rises… Okay, I made up the last bit.

Patricia’s Mercy Thompson series are not normally the sort of book I would choose to read. Being a guy, I have these prejudices about sparkly vampires, sexy werewolves, and novels clearly aimed at that market. Which is stupid on my part. The Moon Called has as much in common with Twilight as Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. In other words, I could have enjoyed this series earlier if not for my misplaced prejudice.

This was a fast paced novel that was highly entertaining. One thing that stood out to me, though, was the novel kind of ended without really finishing the story. This made the ending feel a little unsatisfying, but at the same time it felt like a more natural story, especially for a series. I suppose it is refreshing to have a novel unafraid to not have an epilogue or tagged on final chapter that ties up all the loose ends. And this open-endedness doesn’t feel like a deliberate setup for a series, rather it feels like a genuine limited world perspective: we don’t get to know everything because the characters don’t know everything. I will be reading many more Patricia Briggs novels.

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Book reviews: The King’s Deception by Steve Berry

The King's Deception (Cotton Malone, #8)The King’s Deception by Steve Berry
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Have you ever wanted a thriller to star not one, but two book store owners? Well, this is the novel for you!

That’s right, our favourite book seller is back in action. This time Cotton Malone is caught up in a CIA operation called King’s Deception. See what Steve Berry did there? Cotton and his son Gary get caught up with the CIA, SIS – better known as MI6 – and The Dedalus Society’s deadly spy games. King’s Deception is their game and Cotton has to blah blah the McGuffin surrounding Elizabeth the First before the blah blah.

I’m a big fan of Steve Berry’s novels. They are always entertaining and well thought out thrillers. Berry is the writer Dan Brown wishes he was, but then takes a swim in his pool of money to console himself. As is typical with this genre, Berry seamlessly mixes the modern day with the historical McGuffin in a plausible and interesting manner. But for me, I found this to be one of Berry’s weaker novels.

My main fault with the book was that it was a story being recounted between the narrator and reader analogues, with the first and last chapters book ending the actual story. I hate this sort of story telling. It always feels hackneyed, even in films. At least flashbacks only last a short time, this is like having 95% of the story be a flashback. In this case you could cut the first and last chapters out and it would be a perfectly reasonable novel, so the additions of these parts feels superfluous.

Despite that criticism, the book was entertaining and would rank 4 stars, but I’m giving it 3.5 stars. I’m taking half a star off for the book-ends on the actual story.

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Book review: The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham

The Dying Hours (Tom Thorne, #11)The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve always wondered how many professional killers like to stage suicides. Purely on an intellectual curiosity basis of course. Honest.

Mark Billingham’s The Dying Hours is another in the successful run of Tom Thorne crime novels. In the last book, Thorne was bumped back down to uniform and is loving it so much that he starts an investigation into a suicide that didn’t seem right to him. It isn’t long before he finds others that aren’t suicides but part of a hit list for a retired criminal. And that’s pretty much the novel summed up.

Therein lies my problem with the book. Crime novels are as full of tropes and cliches as any other genre and there are only so many plots to go around, it is about using the tropes in an interesting way. Billingham is highly regarded and I’ve heard good things about his work, but this story felt flat to me. There were too many well-worn steps being trod over the course of the novel and it bored me. Reading other reviews there were many long time fans who felt the same way.

If you want a standard crime novel, this will fit the bill. But it might be worth checking out the other books in the series, or other works from Billingham, instead of this one.

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Book review: Back Story by David Mitchell

Back StoryBack Story by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s no book quite like the autobiography, since they are usually biographies with some poor ghost writer having to make an illiterate celebrity (sportsperson) sound interesting. Odd that I’d decide to read an actual autobiography.

Just so we’re clear, this is a book by David Mitchell the comedian, not David Mitchell the award winning author. David Mitchell is a particularly funny comedian from the UK, one part of the Mitchell and Webb team, and Back Story is his tale of growing up and “getting on the tele”. Listening to the audiobook had the added benefit of David telling his story and giving his various rants and jokes the life they deserved.

That’s right, this book is funny from start to finish. Many comedic efforts fail to do this, either trying to squeeze too much out of a one joke premise, failing to be consistent, or having the jokes become tired – more of the same – somewhere in the middle of the book. Ostensibly told as David walks to work one morning, and recounting his life thus far, he manages to pack in a lot of commentary about schooling, university drama societies (Footlights), and the oddities of making shows for TV. And in true David Mitchell style there are plenty of witty insights, comedic rants, and down the barrel jokes to tell the tales.

I generally think that celebrity biographies are symptomatic of what is wrong with publishing and book stores. Someone has gone to a lot of effort to convince the reading public that these celebrities actually wrote the book (because they have heaps of spare time, and are well known for their writing prowess) and that they have something interesting to tell you that the tabloids haven’t already used as filler around those telephoto swimsuit shots. They’ve even managed to convince people that this is what you buy people as gifts, especially Xmas gifts for your dad. I don’t know if this was a big campaign or just one of those things that happened, but it would be great if people could stop pretending that sports people are interesting, are literate, and are actually writing a tell-all-book.

It is probably because David Mitchell is clearly the writer of this book, that the humour and the story told are entertaining yet honest, that I’ve enjoyed this autobiography. Too often in the past I’ve been disappointed with biographies and comedy books, so this was not just a good read, it was refreshingly good.

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Book Review: Sins of the Father by Jeffrey Archer

The Sins of the FatherThe Sins of the Father by Jeffrey Archer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If there is one lesson to be learned from this novel it is that no matter how bad things look – be it war, prison, fraud, or being a prisoner of war – as long as you are rich or have rich friends you’ll be fine. Oh, and having a peerage title is kinda inherent in the rich part.

Sins of the Father follows several characters through the events in and around the second world war. Harry Clifton was going to marry Emma Barrington, and despite Emma being pregnant, decides to join the navy after finding out that she could be his sister. Harry trades identities with Tom Bradshaw because reasons, which lands him in jail…… Okay, so this is just one long tale of misfortune disguised as a plot: you get the idea.

Archer deftly weaves his way across multiple time periods with multiple characters suffering multiple hardships. But I found that I was only really interested in two characters, Maisy Clifton (Harry’s mother) and Emma Barrington. This may have been because these were the strong willed characters who were grabbing circumstances by the horns and winning the tussle (or at least fighting the good fight). Archer takes several potshots at the issue of class and the peer system in the UK, the ones that work hard are rewarded, the ones that just sit back and inherit ultimately lose (is that a spoiler alert?). But he still manages to have the rich and peerage-d folk avoid death when their less fortunate and not rich commoner friends aren’t so lucky.

This was an engaging read but was let down by the ending. I’ll quite happily ignore the idea of the House of Lords having nothing better to do than spending an entire day debating who gets to inherit what, rather than say running the country as per the job description. I’ll even allow the speeches being included as part of the story. But I won’t abide Archer leaving this plot point unresolved until the next novel. That’s a deduction of one star from the rating right there.

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Book Review: The Valhalla Prophecy by Andy McDermott

The Valhalla Prophecy
The Valhalla Prophecy by Andy McDermott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At the rate Andy McDermott is going there aren’t going to be any ancient historical mysteries left to blow up. In this one, Nina and Eddie destroy Valhalla.

This is the ninth Nina and Eddie adventure, so at this stage there isn’t much need to describe the plot…. Oh okay. Ancient myth turns out to be real, there is a race to get to the archeological site first, things get blown up, people get shot at, world crisis averted. Or as my friend Iain summed it up: “Stupid, overblown, ridiculous, unbelievable, and utterly fucking brilliant.”

I always enjoy Andy’s adventure series, and his Persona Protocol was also good fun. You can’t help but enjoy his stories.

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Book Review: Deep Storm by Lincoln Child

Deep StormDeep Storm by Lincoln Child
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

It isn’t often that scientists are the good guys. Usually they are the bad guys, or at least facilitate things going horribly wrong, or they are socially inept losers. This time it is the military trying to ruin the planet…. I suppose you can’t do away with every cliché.

Lincoln Child of the widely successful Preston and Child writing duo, wrote this stand-alone novel, Deep Storm. Dr Peter Crane is a medical scientist recruited to help discover what is ailing a military and scientific team operating in a top secret deep water facility. The team have discovered something deep in the North Atlantic and are trying to uncover what it is, where it came from, and what scientific marvels it will unveil. If only people would stop going crazy and if they had left the saboteur behind.

I’m a huge fan of Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston’s work. I’ve previously read Preston’s stand-alone novels Impact and Blasphemy, the latter being one of my 5 star reviews, but until now I hadn’t read a stand-alone from Child. Deep Storm is definitely not as strong as either of Preston’s stand-alones, nor as good as most of their joint novels I’ve read. This novel had a lot of elements I liked about it, including the fairly well thought out plot. Normally techno-thrillers get bogged down in details (e.g. Crichton’s Timeline) or get the science wrong (e.g. Crichton’s State of Fear), but Child managed to balance accuracy with pacing.

The main reason I think this isn’t as strong a novel as the others in the Preston and Child oeuvre is that Deep Storm feels like a “by the numbers” thriller. Blasphemy had some interesting things to say about humans and beliefs. The Pendergast novels are underpinned by one of the more interesting central characters in the thriller genre. Which is why this book, whilst entertaining, felt lacking in comparison. This was still a tense, fast paced, engaging read and definitely one for Preston and Child or techno-thriller fans.

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Book Review: Sign of the Cross by Chris Kuzneski

Sign Of The Cross (Jonathon Payne & David Jones, #2)Sign Of The Cross by Chris Kuzneski

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Sometimes when I’m reading a book I’m not sure if I’m meant to be excited, enrapt, or cringing. It’s taken me a few days to arrive at a decision and I’ve decided to cringe.

Sign of the Cross is a fast paced action adventure novel in the vein of Steve Berry, James Rollins, or that guy who wrote the book that annoyed the Pope; what was his name? In the second instalment of Payne and Jones’ adventures, the mercenaries are hired to hunt down two archaeologists who have uncovered a secret that could bring down the Catholic Church. Meanwhile a team of killers are reenacting the crucifixion, because, you know, that’s what Jesus would have wanted. With everyone hunting for Payne, Jones and their pet archaeologists, and a few murderers running around, who at the Vatican knows and who wants the secret, and do they want it for power or payback?

This is the first Chris Kuzneski book I’ve read, and it will be my last. Now that I’ve had time to reflect upon the story and writing, I’m actually surprised I finished the novel. Kuzneski came up in my recommendations because he writes fast paced adventure novels like two of my favourite authors, the previously mentioned Berry and Rollins. Unlike those two, however, Kuzneski takes all of the same ingredients for a novel, mixes them in an overly large bowl (the book is over 400 pages), and manages to make gruel.

The novel started well, but I noticed myself cringing at the end of the chapters with the ham-fisted foreshadowing. This continued until I would start preemptively cringing as I reached the end of each chapter. Seriously, it felt like the end of every scene or chapter Kuzneski would have a line like “Little did they know that only two of them would return.” But wait, there is more. There is an underlying casual sexism and racism to the novel that is unintentional, but jarring. An early scene has one of the characters, Nick Dial, surprised to see a woman Interpol agent. Not that Nick was sexist, women could be just as good as men……. No, Nick explained that he wasn’t sexist, but some of his bosses weren’t as open minded. Yeah. I’m not sexist, but….

These two points are just the major problems I had with the writing of this novel. And it is mainly the writing that lets this book down. In the example I just mentioned, there are many ways authors could discuss Nick’s surprise at seeing a woman on the job. But the way the scene was written it sounded like the author was desperately trying to sound progressive and PC. This poor writing happened throughout the book, which actually has a reasonable plot, a bit of humour, and great pacing. Some readers may not notice these issues, although I note many reviews complain about the foreshadowing, and it was entertaining enough for me to finish reading, so others may find this enjoyable. But I would recommend reading anything by Steve Berry or James Rollins instead.

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