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Have you ever wondered whether a black cat crossing your path really brings you bad luck? How about what the funniest joke in the world is? Are you really connected to Sir Richard Branson by just six degrees? And how can you tell whether someone is actually lying? Richard Wiseman seems to spend his life cogitating over these kinds of questions, but unlike all the rest of us, he then decides he is going to find out what the answer is for once and for all.

Quirkology is a fabulous collection of Richard’s experiments, many of which produce some true surprises. His book successfully brings the fun into science and makes you think about those odd little aspects of life which we take for granted or believe without question. I just love his audacity in his search to find the truth. I have seen Richard speak and watched him perform his magic tricks (he is a magician as well as a scientist) and his book reads exactly like he speaks in person. It is entertaining, engaging and informative all at the same time. It’s a tough book to put down, and if you are ever looking for fascinating after dinner conversation or trivia, this is definitely the book to turn to.

If offered a jumper which had been rubbed in dog poo but not thoroughly laundered, or one which had been worn by a serial killer and thoroughly laundered, which would you prefer to put on? What do you think the majority of people said?

The one point I laughed out loud? Soon after he had been talking about Freud, the following line appeared

“Although Freud claimed to be a scientist, many of his ideas are completely untesticle”

Freudian slip perhaps? Or a deliberate ploy to see if you were paying attention. In either case, I absolutely loved this book and am looking forward to a sequel.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 978-0-230-70215-8
Publisher: Macmillan
Year: 2007
Date Finished: 3 May 2005
Pages: 298
Challenges: 4/8 of category 6: Science and Scepticism; W from the A-Z Challenge

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A century ago, the art of letter writing was dominant. Correspondence formed the most effective way to communicate, and people wrote letters with the frequency that people write emails today – but perhaps with more thought, more feeling and more emotion than the technological form into which letter writing has evolved. Letters From a Lost Generation provides a heart-wrenching example of how letters can bring people to life again. As a reader, you feel like you are usurping on some of the most touching, private moments of the writers’ lives. It makes you feel incredibly privileged, but it also ensures that you experience all of the emotions which passed between the correspondents.

This book is a collection of letters between Vera Brittain, a VAD during the First World War, and her fiance, Roland Leighton, her brother Edward Brittain, and two of their friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. Unlike any of the fictionalised accounts of the Great War, this book was all the more poignant because the words were written whilst the war was raging. Tragically, one by one, all four of the young men are killed. The style of the book means that as a reader, you are acutely aware of when their voices fall silent. It is as if you are seeing it all through Vera’s eyes, and feeling her anguish.

The infant relationship between Vera and Roland is the one I found most tragic. The two were so young and had barely had the chance to get to know one another. I remember feeling a similar feeling of loss when I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It was a sense of anger at the sheer waste. A waste of years, a waste of love and a waste of the future. The first half of this book is dominated by the correspondence between the two, and when Roland is killed, one day before he was due to return home on leave, I had to put the book down in tears.

The book’s themes are pride, loss, maturing and change. All of the key players start out young, idealistic and eager. But as their letters show, this deserts them little by little as the reality of war starts to show. And yet, as public school graduates, officer classes, none fully allow despair to slow them. All of them bravely face their own deaths in their individual ways. Vera acts as their rock and confident, staying with them until their short lives are terminated.

I would be hard pressed to find a more personal account of World War I.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-349-11152-9
Publisher: Abacus
Year: 1998
Date Finished: 30 April 2008
Pages: 415
Challenges: 5/8 of category 7: Books with WWI as a theme for the 888 Challenge

Child 44 is Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, and it is an incredible way to launch one’s career as a suspense writer. Set in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and connected with real events, the book is intensely disturbing and totally gripping at the same time. What struck me most was how terrible the life was for every citizen of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was like a different world and it was a wonder that people survived through it.

The story follows the fall of Leo Demidov, who holds a high ranking position in the MGB but becomes the object of hatred of one of his subordinates. His fall from grace finds him investigating a murder in a country where officially murder did not exist. Crime was an aberration which was generally ignored or brushed aside without even the semblance of justice, for fear that its presence would question the perfection of the Communist ideal, where because everyone was equal, crime was unnecessary and therefore was naturally eliminated. But idealistic Communism is an impossible proposition when faced with the worst aspects of human nature, and the crimes Leo finds himself faced with are callous, horrific and terrifyingly regular.

This book oozes paranoia and suspicion, which is why it is so disturbing. It seems that within Soviet Russia, there was no such thing as trust, friendship or love because a simple word to the authorities spelt doom for anyone, irrespective of innocence or guilt. The state apparatus apportioned guilt to anyone who did anything even slightly suspicious. If you looked the wrong way at the wrong person, it could mean death. If you treated a pet belonging to a foreigner, you were a spy. If you even thought negative thoughts about the regime, or were indiscreet enough to mutter them, your future generally comprised of hard labour in a gulag, or execution.

Irrespective of the bravery of Leo and his wife beneath such a hostile regime, the message that stood out so strongly for me in this book is that without trust, without care of another and for another, without confidence, then human life is simply a shadow. It is almost not worth existing, when your entire life is spent wondering whether a misplaced word would result in your arrest. This story is the tale of the absolute worst of human nature. It is brutishness, selfishness, paranoia, hatred, fear and vindictiveness laid bare. I am only pleased that as the story progressed, some of the better sides of human nature began to show out otherwise it would have made for grim reading indeed.

I had to suspend my disbelief a little for the ending. After the man hunt mounted to catch Leo and Raisa, I felt it ended a little suddenly and a little more tamely than I would have thought. I can see that the author has left a couple of hanging threads for the next novel in the series which is fine, but after the pace and excitement of the whole novel, without giving a spoiler, the final pages fell a little bit flat for me. Also, I found myself a little irritated by the style of the dialogue. Rather than

“putting conversation in inverted commas, as is normal”

the conversation was written

– In italics and not marked in inverted commas

Just like uppercase letters are generally read as shouting, in my mind the dialogue throughout felt like it was being whispered or spoken a long distance away. Although perhaps that was the intention.

This is not to detract from an incredibly exciting book and a fantastic first novel. I’ll be on the lookout for this author in the future.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-1-84737-127-0
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Year: 2008
Date Finished: 23 April 2008 (at 3.00am!)
Pages: 469
Challenges: 4/8 Category 1 of the 888 Challenge: Crime Fiction; S from the A-Z Challenge; 2/8 from The Pub Challenge

Victorian humour? Is it possible? I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but Jerome K. Jerome proved in Three Men in a Boat that it was indeed possible. Despite my normal aversion to ‘funny books’ (in particular modern funny books) there were moments I actually laughed out loud whilst reading this book. It was ‘Murphy’s Law’ in prose, with delightful observations on the world which haven’t lost their relevance despite more than a century passing since the book was first published.

Jerome set out to write a river guide which soon turned into a charming story about the boating antics of the working and lower middle classes in London. The three men are himself and two of his friends as well as a fox terrier, Montmorency, to whom Jerome gives a wry humour and a personality which perfectly suits the group. After spending an evening contemplating their respective illnesses (none of which they had of course), the three friends decided to take two weeks in a boat along the Thames, with idyllic ideas of pleasure, freedom and nature. Thus decided, the journey begins…

This book isn’t fantastic because of its plot – in fact the plot is thin at the best of times. It is fantastic because of the observations made by J and his friends whilst they travel. Whether it was the fun of the three trying (and failing) to open a tin of pineapple chunks, or the observations that because Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn courted in several places, it must have been intenseley frustrating for everyone at the time because every single place they went they would have run into the two wayward lovers, or the delicious description of how they loved to hold up the steam launches by pretending they couldn’t hear them, until they were being towed by a steam launch and then they felt justified in cursing all of the selfish boaters who held up the steam launches by pretending they couldn’t bhear them, this book was constant amusement. Of course, the trip wasn’t as idyllic as they wanted, but that never seemed to dampen the spirits of the main characters. In that respect, they were truly delightful.

Three Men in a Boat paints a lovely picture of the way leisure time was spent during the 1880s. Despite the fact that leisure time was earnt through long hours and hard work, it was used as a way to transcend class and, just for a few short hours, pretend that they were men of leisure with all the time on their hands and the beauty and history of the river in their grasp. In contrast to classics such as Dickens, which paint a miserable picture of the poorer classes of London, Jerome chooses to show them up as happy, carefree and full of humour. It was a lovely contrast.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-0-14-144121-4
Publisher: Penguin (Classics)
Year: 1889
Date Finished: 16 April 2008
Pages: 178

Quite often, the books I read will make me wish I could live more than one lifetime in order to pursue all of the different careers which spark my interest. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson was one of those book. The difference with this book is that rather than an alternative career path, this one found me wishing I could pursue 10 or 15 other career paths because they all sounded so interesting and all left me wanting to know more.

Bryson sets himself no small task with this book. His idea is to describe in as much depth as possible, the origins of the earth, life and science, traversing over astronomy, geology, astrophysics, physics, chemistry, genetics, evolution, biology, zoology, anthropology and a huge armload of other scientific fields which make this planet so utterly fascinating and amazing to be a part of. He writes in a very accessible style, so even as he is trying to describe Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the still contentious string theory, the reader never feels alientated. Within less than 500 pages, you can begin to grasp the very basics of quantum theory, the theory of the Big Bang and evolutionary selection, all things which every living person on earth should know to give them a better understanding of the world around them.

I am always impressed by Bryson’s exhaustive research. Even though he hasn’t set out to write an academic text, he appears to have made every effort to verify his facts as well as give personality to the characters who have helped the human race build their scientific knowledge to now. Granted, I am sure there are many glaring gaps and many individuals who may have been missed in his narrative. Granted, there is undoubtedly poetic licence in Bryson’s anecdotal personalities. But the poetic licence is necessary to turn this book into an enjoyable read, whether you have a scientific background or not.

I took immense pleasure in being reminded of my high school chemistry in the chapters about the elements. But I think what surprised me and pleased me most of all about A Short History of Nearly Everything is the realisation of how little we know. Not just how little I know as an individual, but how little we know as a race. I think common perception is that we have mentally conquered much of the earth and universe. In fact, we have barely breathed on the surface. And that is what makes it all the more exciting. As a new, tiny piece of knowledge is achieved, one more mystery is resolved, and two more mysteries arise. What an amazing field to be involved in.

Rating: 9/10
ISBN: 0-385-40818-8
Publisher: Doubleday
Year: 2003
Date Finished: 11 April 2008
Pages: 423pp (not including bibliography and notes)
Challenges: 3/8 of Science and Skepticism category.

Sham

I spent much of this book in a state of some confusion. I wasn’t confused because I didn’t understand the subject matter – rather my confusion came from my feelings towards it. Much of the book I agreed with strongly, but other parts I didn’t agree with at all. To be fair, this paradox lends the book its interest and ensures it is a success because it really drove my to think about why I was reacting towards it the way I was.

Steve Salerno is a journalist who discovered that the acronym of the Self-Help and Actualisation Movement was SHAM. This serves well to outline what his expose is all about. His basic thesis is that with the growth of the ‘self-help’ industry in America, the result has been a nationwide helplessness, selfishness and imprisonment in a vicious cycle of feeling awful, being given hope and then feeling awful again. He deals with the self-help movement in general and with Dr Phil, Tony Robbins and Alcoholics Anonymous in particular. Salerno identifies that all of the movements are either based on the premise that everyone is a victim (in other words, everything that happens to you in life is someone else’s fault – you are completely blameless) or that everyone is empowered (in other words, no matter what your actual talents, skills and capacity you have a right to be the best and no-one has any right to stop you). Perhaps these might have been valuable premises to start with, but Salerno argues that the result is a society which is litigious to the point of stupidity, the destruction of families due to artificial blame and the complete exoneration of any responsibility for one’s own life on the one hand, and the destruction of any kind of competition (to the point that competitive games can no longer be played in some schools), the false building up of people’s hopes and the cotton wool mentality that nothing bad can ever happen to you if you just believe on the other.

I found myself agreeing with much of this. Perhaps it is an indication of my age, but I cannot see how a total elimination of any form of competition or grading in schools can be a good thing. I also found myself growing angry as Salerno outlined the result of this mentality of “it’s not my fault, it is the fault of my family/upbringing/illness/society/the banks/my boss/my dog…”

And yet, I don’t see ‘self-help’ as all bad. What I see is bad is when it is taken to the extreme that it has been. Self-awareness and honesty is a valuable trait. Of course, I don’t see blaming the whole world for your misfortunes as being particularly honest, but I do think the understanding yourself and how you think is vital to get along in life. Salerno seemed to switch, sometimes even mid-sentence, from exposing the extremes of self-help to exposing simple self awareness as a bad thing. Unfortunately, despite the value of much of his argument, I found this weakened it somewhat and I came away not being as convinced as I could be.

The other fault I found was that this book was devoted to exposing how bad things had become, but spent very little time on suggesting some possible solutions. Granted, it may be almost impossible now to reverse the damage that the self-help movement may have caused. And more so, with the amount of money that the movement makes each year, I doubt it is going to change in a hurry. But, I have always thought “If it worked, then why would you ever need to buy more than one book?”. Fortunately for the movement, it doesn’t work, and so people will continue to spend seeking the holy grail of happiness while all the time steering themselves away from it.

It makes for disturbing reading and it definitely makes you think but a little more consistency wouldn’t have gone astray.

Rating: 5/10
ISBN: 1-85788-380-2
Publisher: Nicholas Brealey Publishing
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 4th April 2008
Pages: 263
Challenges: 2/8 of category 6 – Science and Skepticism (I relent – I’ll use the American spelling) of the 888 Challenge.

I found this article recently, which estimated as an aside that an ‘extraordinary’ reader, who manages to finish an average of a book a week, will only be able to read about 3000 books in their lifetime. I calculated that at a book a week for approximately 57 years, so starting at the age of 13 and living (and reading) through until 70 years old. 3000 books…

Goodness. Is that all?

That’s just not enough.

The article goes on to talk about how, due to this limitation, it is so important to choose your reading carefully and not to waste your time on ‘bad books’. But I kept getting caught on how few 3000 books actually is. Just to put it in perspective, I own nearly 1000 books – which would make up a third of my lifetime quota already. I would love to read my way through my entire book collection (which grows at a rate of 5 – 10 books a month) but still allowing myself to get distracted by library books, book club books, borrowed books, re-reads of favourites and the plethora of other reading material that is out there. Which then begs the question. Am I simply being unrealistic?

I am in no place to estimate my own life expectancy, nor my ability to continue to read until I reach it, but of course I hope the prognosis on both will be good. But being well into my 30’s already, I am a long way past the 13 year old starting age. Can I start my 3000 all over again please?

Realistically, I can read more than a book a week, which increases my numbers. I have joined the 75 book challenge over at LibraryThing in conjunction with various other reading challenges this year, so that ups my total by 50% at least. Then there is always the example of this lady who is looking to read 200 books this year. She’s certainly defying the average.

The problem is, there are so many admirable books out there. There are so many exciting stories to read. There are so many fascinating things to learn and amazing things to discover between the pages of books. Even some of the ‘bad books’ merit a read. I have spent time with books that reviewers have slated and been pleased I made the effort. I have persevered with books I started out hating and not been sorry. Of course, there were some which I was sorry and hated all the way through, but how would I have known the difference if I hadn’t persevered? Now I wonder, has that one bad book has taken up one of my precious quota?

As much as I hope for immortality to achieve my quest of reading everything in the Amazon catalogue, being a realist I am not really holding my hopes up. In the meantime, all we can do is our best.

3000 books just isn’t enough.

I had better get reading.