Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the tag “Reading”

Book Review: Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs

Blood Bound (Mercy Thompson, #2)Blood Bound by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Never do a favour for something as it will come back to bite you.

Mercy Thompson is just your typical small business owner: fixing cars, keeping customers happy, seeing ghosts, dating werewolves, and being asked to do a vampire a favour. The favour involves helping Stephan with a vampire sorcerer, and that goes just as well as you’d expect. With the death-toll rising and even vampires and werewolves powerless against the sorcerer, it looks like Mercy is the only one who can stop evil.

Blood Bound is the second Mercy Thompson novel by Patricia Briggs. Where the first novel had more of a crime novel vibe, this is its own beast. Mercy may be the protagonist, but the world doesn’t revolve around her, so many things happen without her, yet ultimately drag her into the fray. This makes the series quite refreshing and enjoyable for me. I’m looking forward to reading the next instalment.

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Book reviews: Havana Lost by Libby Fischer Hellmann

Havana LostHavana Lost by Libby Fischer Hellmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If a family saga is told about a mob family’s saga, does algebra mean it ceases to be a family saga?

Headstrong teen, Francesca Pacelli, is a mob boss’ daughter living in Havana at the dawn of the Cuban Revolution. Rather than leave for the USA, she falls in love with a revolutionary. Her father takes that news so well that he even sells arms to the rebels to get her back. Good thing she grows up to be a mob boss herself.

When I started Hellmann’s Havana Lost I had been expecting a more standard crime novel. It took me a while to realise that this was going to be a saga stretching from the 1950s in Cuba to modern day USA. Love and tragedy fill the story to the brim, making for an interesting read. But without a protagonist to follow throughout the novel, I felt a little lost. This was partly because I wasn’t prepared for the saga – should have read the blurb I suppose – and partly because there is a lot of setup to the story with Francesca’s character.

So as long as you are prepared for the Pacelli family tale of love, loss, and coltan mines, you should enjoy this.

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Book reviews: you’re doing it wrong… apparently.

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It is no secret that I like to write book reviews. Except when I’m sleepy. Or if I’m busy. Or if I get distracted by… Where am I?

Anyway, to my mind, book reviews are about helping people find good stuff to read and promoting authors whose work you’ve enjoyed. Of course some reviewers use it as a an opportunity to break away from the internet commenter stereotype and be jerks to others. This can be frustrating for authors and readers, but about par for the course as far as internet comments goes.

Fortunately an author has written a blog post advising people how to properly review books. Because you’re doing it wrong…

As a reader, reviewer, and occasionally sober writer, I don’t think authors should be telling readers what to do or how to do it, so the post doesn’t sit right with me. Actually, a lot of things don’t sit right with me, especially if they aren’t single malt and well aged.

Who are book reviews for?

You might be forgiven for thinking that writing a book review is primarily to flatter the author, or thank the author for writing an enjoyable book.

Book reviews are for prospective readers; to inform those buyers who are browsing the Amazon bookstore, chatting on Goodreads or following on-line bloggers, to decide if they might enjoy the book as much as the reviewer did. 

The first major point is one I agree with: book reviews are for readers. But maybe not the readers the author thinks. Reviews are primarily about that reader and their thoughts. Sure, they may be trying to communicate with other readers and make recommendations, but let’s face facts, it is mostly just about sharing an opinion. Or is that shouting into the void? I can never remember the difference.

My philosophy on book reviewing – helping and promoting good stuff – is probably shared by many, or not, I haven’t checked. But I see it as an important aspect of being a reader and writer. Thanks to the wonders of technology we have access to more books than we’ll ever be able to read, and some of them are worth reading. Sharing your opinion of a book can help others find stories that will entertain them. Personally I’m not a fan of sharing reviews of books I haven’t enjoyed, just the ones I think others will enjoy reading, but negative and positive reviews are both helpful.

The next points:

What to include:

The best single rule to remember is this: Only write about the actual book!

You can include a very brief outline of the story, but remember the book description is already right there, so consider these points:

Was the story believable, did it keep you engaged right to the last page?

Did the structure of the plot work for you?

If it’s a mystery, was there one?

The characters. Did they seem real, multi-dimensional people?

The author’s writing style. How was it for you?

The first point on this list is, frankly, rubbish. A book does not exist in a vacuum. Well, unless it was taken into space, but why would anyone do that? Unless they are an astronaut, but they’d want the book in the ship with them. Anyway, all art/media is a product of the space it was created in, it has cultural and philosophical underpinnings that are part and parcel. And following on from that, the cultural landscape changes over time and individuals consuming the art/media are going to evolve as a result. So you can’t just write only about the book in a review, you will always bring baggage with you. Want an example? Try watching the original Ghostbusters movie without thinking Bill Murray’s character isn’t just a tad rape-y by today’s standards.

The next points about the story and how it is written are fair enough advice on things you could include. But you could include all or none of those things and still write a good review. The next part is where this blog post gets juicy:

What not to include:

Your possible relationship to the author, however vague.

If you need to reference the author, then use the surname only or call them the author or include their full name. Never use Christian names as it may compromise the validity of the review and some sites will remove them permanently.

Imagine if you saw this review on the latest Dan Brown: Hello Dan love, fabulous book, Five stars!  I expect the vast majority of us would laugh, Dan Brown would most certainly cringe – but most importantly, would this sort of review help you form a decision to buy the book if you’d not read it?

I don’t know about this, I’ve read Dan Brown’s Inferno; I’m not sure he knows how to cringe.

There are two points to unpack here: the first is the idea that your relationship with the author doesn’t have any bearing on a review; the second is the idea that you’re trying to help the author sell books. To suggest that there is a way to refer to an author or that you shouldn’t mention conflicts of interest is wrong. If I like someone I will naturally be inclined to think their book is better than someone whom I don’t know or like. Similarly, if I already like someone’s writing, their lesser works are likely to viewed more favourably than a new author’s work.

It also irks me that the blog is implying that the author is off limits for criticism. That is rubbish. If I know that the book or author is controversial, then that will also colour my review and is worth raising. An example was James Frey’s Lorian Legacies series published under a pseudonym. During my reading of I Am Number Four I noticed several very lazy factual inaccuracies and wanted to know who the author actually was. It was then that I found out that Frey had scammed a bunch of writing students to produce the series. Not only did that colour my (lack of) appreciation of the novel, but it was information I felt other readers should know. Because screw that guy.

This links nicely into the next point about reviews helping to sell books. It is true that book reviews help sell books: who’d have thunk? It is also true that if you want to see more great material from an author one of the things you can do is make sure people know you enjoyed the book. But since when is it the reader/reviewer’s obligation to help sell books for an author? Shouldn’t an author be happy that you bought and enjoyed their book? Well, unless you borrowed the book from a library, friend, or got a freebie. I understand the desire of authors to encourage people to review their book/s, and what it can help do in terms of recognition and thus sales, but a review isn’t about selling a book. The review is about the reader sharing their thoughts on a book they have read. Book store clerks get paid, readers don’t. Worth remembering.

The weather! I’m being tongue-in-cheek here but really, no honestly, there’s no need to mention the weather…

How long the book took to arrive in the post, or that it was damaged. This isn’t the fault of the author – stick to reviewing the book.

Likewise, problems with your Amazon account: It won’t download. This is not the author’s fault and should never form part of a book review.

These next few comments are mainly about Amazon reviews and how people talk about the buying of the book in their review. While it is completely understandable for an author to be frustrated with comments in a review that are unrelated to the story they wrote, this recommendation is not only self-serving drivel, it forgets who the review is for. If someone orders a book from Amazon and the shipment is not filled quickly, or won’t download, or the pricing is ridiculous, or the bonus “massager” didn’t arrive with the romance novel order, then that is a legitimate gripe. Other readers on the Amazon store will want to know this stuff. But even if this wasn’t on the Amazon store, there is legitimate griping to be done. For example, in Australia several major publishers price their ebooks based upon the currently available paper version’s price. So if the hardcover is out, you pay hardcover prices for an ebook. Where else but a book review are you going to express your consumer discontent on this? Well, aside from in a blog post like this one. Or if you are talking to one of the publishers at a writers’ festival. Or if you know someone, who knows someone, who is related to a publisher. If the author was raising the point that there needs to be a distinction made been the store’s service, the publisher’s pricing, and the novels, then that would be something I’d support. Along with free hats. Everyone loves a free hat.

Spoilers: giving away crucial parts of the plot and therefore spoiling it for other readers, e.g. I’m glad Susan was dead by chapter three.

Copying and pasting the entire book description – please dont.

And the worst of all: I haven’t read it yet… so one star. Why on earth do sites allow these ‘reviews’ to remain?

Some people really hate spoilers, others love them, others still are ambivalent, others still still will hunt you down and kill you with your own keyboard for posting them. As such there is an etiquette to posting spoilers in a review. If you are an undefeated Muay Thai fighter with a decent ground game, then you can post whatever spoiler you like. If you are anyone else, you can post spoilers as long as you warn people you are going to do it. Then people can read or skip the spoilers to their heart’s content, assuming the Muay Thai fighter hasn’t ripped their heart out of their chest for posting a spoiler.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen someone post a book review that includes a copy and paste of the book description. If this actually happens then it is either a compliment to the blurb author for capturing the book perfectly so as to act as an appropriate review, or someone needs to learn how to type their own thoughts.

The final point is about the dismissive one star review. Now some people, such as the blog post author, complain about these sorts of reviews are not legitimate. Nonsense. Books have a cover, a blurb, the reader might have read other books by the author, etc, all of which can be more than enough information for the reviewer. For example, let’s say that someone has written a book – fiction or non-fiction, it doesn’t really matter – that claims climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, NWO, Zionist Bankers to something something profit-gravy-train. Do I really need to leave a long and extensive review once I’ve read the book? Or can I just point out that it is nonsense? Is that not legitimate comment?

Now these have all been relatively minor gripes to quibble with. Fun fact: Quibbles are the Earth equivalent of Tribbles. Bonus fact: the most famous Quibble currently sits on the next president of the USA’s head.

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Quibbles and Tribbles aside, let’s talk about complaining about book reviews not being done the way you want when you yourself don’t review books. There is that inspiring – or is that insipid? – quote about being the change you want to see which applies here. The author of the blog post has exactly zero book reviews on their site, not counting the promotion of reviews of their own novels. The author’s Goodreads page has no books listed as having been rated or reviewed. Do as I say, not as I do. I mean, sure, that isn’t demanding at all.

In summary, it’s best to be thankful for readers writing reviews, even the bad reviews.

 

Book review: Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Finders Keepers (Bill Hodges Trilogy, #2)Finders Keepers by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Enter a world where people obsess over books that aren’t Harry Potter. Of course it is a fictional world.

Peter Saubers’ family is having a tough time of it. The GFC has hit hard, his dad was hit hard with a car, and the arky-barkies might tear the family apart. Then he stumbles upon a literal treasure chest: stolen money and notebooks from the late John Rothstein – a reclusive author in the mould of JD Salinger. Of course, the man who killed for those notebooks, Morris Bellamy, has a wee fixation on Rothstein and his character Jimmy Gold, so not even a life sentence will stop him coming for Peter Saubers and his treasure.

I’ll be honest, I was going to give up on this book. If it hadn’t been written by Stephen King I probably would have. This is the second novel in the Bill Hodges trilogy, and Bill doesn’t show up until a third to half-way through the novel. That is part of what makes this novel frustrating. It takes a long time to set things up and get the plot moving, with that first third or more acting as back story that you’re not quite sure has a point to it.

But the final third of the novel redeems this ignoble start in a taut and suspenseful manner. Definitely not one of King’s better works, but if you can get past the waffly back story, this is an okay read.

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Book review: Killfile by Christopher Farnsworth

KillfileKillfile by Christopher Farnsworth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are times that I’m glad people can’t read my mind: I’d hate to have someone else humming The Proclaimers.

John Smith is a specialist who helps wealthy clients with tricky problems. He has a talent for hostage negotiations, corporate espionage, and gleaning people’s deepest secrets thanks to his ability to read minds. Who’d have thought that reading people’s minds would turn his latest job into a death sentence.

Killfile is the first novel I’ve read from Christopher Farnsworth since his excellent Nathaniel Cade series went on hiatus four years ago. I read the Nathaniel Cade series back to back and loved every second of those supernatural thrillers. Killfile was similarly enjoyable with the paranormal thriller element pitched nicely into the realms of corporate espionage and CIA interrogation programs.

Also, as a scientific skeptic (i.e. scientist who hears all the kooky claims and demands evidence) it is always fun to read the conspiracy claims in a more rational format. Dusting off MKUltra and utilising it as a plot point in fiction rather than an outlandish conspiracy tickles me in all the right ways.

Chris’ novels continue to be highly enjoyable reads.

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Book Review: Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs

Cry Wolf (Alpha & Omega, #1)Cry Wolf by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Do werewolves smell of wet dog when they are in human form?

Anna is having a tough week. After breaking up with her old pack she moves to the middle of nowhere with a guy/wolf – Charles – whom she has only just met. Then when a rogue wolf starts attacking people, she has to help Charles track it down before it exposes the pack. But is it really a wolf?

Cry Wolf is another werewolf series from Patricia Briggs set in the same universe as the Mercy Thompson series. After being won over by the Mercy series, I decided to give Alpha and Omega series a read. So I started with the Alpha and Omega novella and I am still scratching my head as to why it wasn’t just included as the first few chapters of this novel. If you intend on reading Cry Wolf, do read Alpha and Omega first. Or don’t: I’m not your mother.

This was quite a hard book to rate/review. It was an enjoyable read, but the breaking of the story between the main novel and the introductory novella throws out the narrative a bit. The romance between an abuse survivor and a really old life-long bachelor as the central plot is interesting, but it does tend to wander as the other events of the novel occur. At times I felt the story was just happening with no real point or destination in mind, but it felt like things tied together in the end. And for a Patricia Briggs story set in the same universe as the Mercy Thompson series it is going to draw comparisons. Whilst I’d recommend this book (and novella), it isn’t as good as Mercy and her adventures.

My recommendation is that you’ll enjoy reading this to sate your hunger for werewolf stories when you run out of Mercy Thompson novels to devour.

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Banned Books Week 2016

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Source: ALA.org

Banned Books Week is an American event, but us Aussies have been known to ban books for silly reasons as well. As such, I think this should be a global event. So read something that some overbearing busybody decided was offensive today.

Book review: Tier One by Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson

Tier One (Tier One #1)Tier One by Brian Andrews
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If an operator isn’t wearing 5.11 Tactical clothing are they really an operator?

Tier One are the elite SEAL Team on the black side of ops. They are too good for their own good, as they manage to piss off the wrong terrorists: the kind that hold an explosive grudge. Now former Tier One SEAL, Jack Kemper, must become intelligence operative John Dempsey and take out the terrorists before they strike again.

Brian Andrews and Jeffrey Wilson have created a taught and realistic military thriller in Tier One. Much like other ex-military authors (Chris Ryan and Andy McNab being two of my favourites) they pepper the novel with details and perspectives you just don’t get from other authors. This is both the strength and weakness of the novel.

As much as I found this novel to be an enjoyable and fast paced read, it also overused expository military details, and presented clichéd terrorist characters. For me this held the novel back from being a great novel to merely good. Other readers may find the details interesting, or think that terrorists really can be simply defined as “shitheads” à la Fox News, and enjoy this novel more, but it is still an entertaining read.

NB: Thomas and Mercer provided a review copy for my reading pleasure.

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Can you recommend more authors like Dan Brown?

money-and-hand-of-god

I adore reading. I read very often, my bare minimum being 4 books a week. But ever since I read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ by Dan Brown, I do not feel satisfied with any book I read. I am hungry for more yet no book seems to satisfy me. What books could satisfy me?

Can I recommend more authors like Dan Brown? Hopefully not. In the Pantheon of thrillers authors, Dan Brown sits proudly atop a pile of money that is only rivalled by James Paterson. They are both great at getting people to read their books, for a reason that is unclear to me.

I have a love hate relationship with Dan Brown. Dan writes very entertaining novels that are well paced with interesting plots. But he also manages to bash readers over the head with plot points and squeeze in a lot of useless exposition. At times you honestly think he is just bashing at the keyboard like a drunk monkey taking dictation. Personally I think that Steve Berry and James Rollins, who write a similar genre of thriller, are far better authors. If you haven’t read them already, I’d recommend anything they have written to sate your Brown problem.

There are other authors who dabble in that same genre of thriller who are worth mentioning. I’m a huge fan of Matthew Reilly, who writes insanely fast paced novels that are great fun. His Jack West Jr series have similar “find the artefact to save the world” McGuffin adventures and has a new instalment in the series coming out in September (2016). Andy McDermott also writes fast paced Artefact McGuffin Adventures* which are also humorous in parts.

A tool that might help is the Literature Map. While it doesn’t have every author, it does link them together and give you some good ideas. Or they might lead you astray.

This post originally appeared on Quora.

*I think that should be the official classification for this sub-genre of thriller.

See also:
http://bookwag.com/2013/05/like-dan-brown-then-you-will-love-these-seven-authors/

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

NB: I haven’t covered sports injuries, particularly how over half a million Aussies have long term health conditions as a result of sport. Please see this report for more.

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!

This blog post is being shared online, in print, and carved into a cave wall. Comment below which format you preferred receiving it in.

 

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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