Christmas reads 2014

Because i am a true book geek i unsurprisingly get given books for christmas, however this year as well as a superb collection of interesting books i got some christmas themed ones which i thought i would write a short blog about

The first one was father christmas needs a wee yes i know i’m 36 but my parents have a sense of humour. I still read it though and its lovely beautifully illustrated and a good silly story that actual little kids would love especially because it features people needing a wee

The second was the willows at christmas again a gift from the parents this is not written by kenneth grahame but is instead one of a series of
Willows sequels written by william horwood now i’m not that much of a fan of wind of the willows but this is well written. The author has exactly captured the language and feel of the original and has managed to write a charming little adventure story that fits the world of the willows well. I like his references to the bullying baddy being of the mother in law persuasion or the closest thing to a mother in law that a bachelor such as mr toad could get. This is definitely a recommended read and i may even search out some of his other willows sequels.

And finally the third book was mistletoe and snow an omnibus of two books by Nora roberts also a christmas gift. Although what the actual stories have to do with mistletoe or snow or even christmas really is a little beyond me. I know nora roberts is a famous romance author who is behind a significant number of books but at least from these i don’t understand her appeal. Her characters are wooden and two dimensional you don’t get invested in them at all and their entire worlds seem to fall apart at the slightest problem. Also they are just expected to fall in love either at first sight or in the case of the second story because the man decides they will. The result of this is what feels like quite a formulaic book boy meets girl they feel things for each other but have to spend a good half the book not discussing this for reasons and then face a mild amount of peril so there can be a short will they wont they moment before success other reasons happen and they end up living happily ever after. I am not a fan of nora roberts and would actively not recommend her writing to anyone but as the great philosopher meatloaf says two out of three ain’t bad

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I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes

I read this tome of a book on a recommendation from the crime book club on facebook. It may serve as a warning to me not to always listen to internet recommendations. I thought this was an acceptable spy novel, it is written as if it is being retold after the events have happened with lots of sentences such as little did I know this was going to happen. I find this way of writing books quite annoying although that may be a personal issue with that particular style of writing. There are two clear parts to this book a crime section and the spy/thriller part, the crime section feels as though it has been added for padding and to make the book a suitable “epic” length to fit the authors preference for that type of book.

The book is set in a number of different countries and flicks between past events in the main characters life and the events in the main story. This can be a little confusing as it isn’t always clearly marked out in the book when the time changes happen and as there are multiple threads to the story you occasionally have to reread sections of the book to work out what is happening. The characters in the book are not very well developed and although there should be an air of mystery about our spy and terrorist, it feels like there is some depth and substance missing from all the characters, you find yourself engaging with very few of the characters mentioned in the book and if asked to describe them you would find it very difficult. Some of the secondary characters are slightly more developed however and there is a good description of the events of 9/11 and its lasting effects on the survivors that is an enjoyable part of the story.

The crime section doesn’t really add to the story in anyway other than to introduce a couple of characters who you could meet through the course of events in the other story. The spy/thriller section is passable, about a terrorist who decides to strike against the far enemy America by constructing a virulent strain of smallpox that the hero spy must race to stop him unleashing. It feels passably well researched as you are reading it although a little unimaginative, why do the bad guys always go for smallpox, there are many easier viruses to work with that are very scary such as Spanish flu or ebola or SARS, or you could unleash plague or Anthrax as bacterial weapons but no the weapon of choice is always smallpox, a rather slow acting, low transmission disease (as you generally need direct and fairly prolonged face to face contact for transmission to occur).

My other issue with this book is if you are going to pass something off as well researched and intelligent, than you need to make sure it stands up to more than 10 minutes of google searching on an iphone to debunk. Now I have a specialism in genetics and because I’m a little odd I find viruses fascinating and studied them in dedicated elective modules at uni so maybe I picked up on errors others wouldn’t but any research would point some problems in the book, which I will go on to describe below.

I discovered the main error when he said Smallpox was 185,758 letters long, now DNA (which is my specialty) is always read in sections of three called Codons, these codons make genes, so technically the letters that make up the virus should be divisible by three, this is an error also made when he describes Polio as having 7,741 base pairs (or letters). This is what first alerted me to errors in his research and indeed a simple google search gives the actual base pair number of Smallpox as 180,000 and Polio as 7,500 numbers that work far better mathematically.

The next issue comes with how he manufactures the virus, it would be easy to construct Smallpox DNA because it has been sequenced and anyone with passable knowledge of genetics and access to the internet could probably get there hands on a copy although they may need to register for some bioinformatics or science journal accounts to do so (thereby leaving a trail), my image discovered of smallpox information is below.

smallpoxvirus

He manufactures Smallpox by ordering the base pairs on line which at least according to my research is actually relatively unpoliced, no details or information is kept about where this stuff is sent to or what it might be used for. However when the Guardian newspaper tried ordering a 5,000 base pair section of the smallpox genome they didn’t get a working section, which would have caused our terrorist some serious delays as there base pairs had been modified by the addition of 3 stop codons which would have to be reverse engineered out in order for it to work, a problem that would require access to specialist enzymes that are quite expensive to get hold of and like all enzymes require certain conditions to be able to work effectively. I’m not saying this couldn’t be done in someone’s garage in fact it probably could and fair play to him for coming up with a scary idea, but do the research and present the facts properly it would have made the story more interesting if he had a few issues making his scary virus.

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12 Best books of 2014

Having made a list of the 10 worst books I read this year I have decided to produce a 10 or because there should always be more positives than negatives 12 best of 2014 list. I have read 292 books so far this year and have selected the 12 best for you, so here they are

  • S by JJ abrams http://www.amazon.co.uk/S-J-Abrams-ebook/dp/B00G99SIO6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419432038&sr=8-1&keywords=s – This is a true book lovers books, made for the genuine book geek in your life. This has been aged deliberately and made to look like a library book. It is a story with a story written around it by the 2 people who are loaning the book from the library. Inside the book are extra sheets of information the 2 people conversing with each other have included like napkins and postcards. This is a book that really needs reading twice and then investigating more. I love this book and just want to take it out every so often and cuddle it because it is so beautiful. I have included pictures to demonstrate just how beautiful it is below

Photo 23-12-2014 23 02 50 Photo 23-12-2014 23 02 57

  • Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sandman-Slim-Richard-Kadrey-ebook/dp/B006KWAIOA/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419432070&sr=8-1&keywords=sandman+slim – This is a fantastic urban fantasy book without any of the annoying tropes from this genre of the last few years. This is a bit of a cult classic and I can see why, it tells the story of someone who escapes Hell, having been tricked there unfairly and then going on a mission of revenge. About ½ way through reading this book I knew that I wanted to buy the rest of the series.
  • Sex and Rockets  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Sex-Rockets-Occult-World-Parsons-ebook/dp/B0028Y549S/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1419432093&sr=8-1&keywords=sex+and+rockets– This is a truly weird non-fiction book about the rocket scientist Jack Parsons, it’s part popular science about how he was one of the founding members of the jet propulsion laboratory. Then it gets weirder because Jack Parsons was also a member of the OTO, Aleister Crowleys religion and he was involved in all sorts of weird rituals with some very random people including the founder of the church of Scientology who ran off with his Girlfriend. This was truly one interesting read.
  • The wolf of wall street http://www.amazon.co.uk/Wolf-Wall-Street-Jordan-Belfort-ebook/dp/B005AVIW54/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&qid=1419432126&sr=8-3&keywords=wolf+of+wall+street – I came across this book, when I left mine at work and I really wanted to find something to read, this was so cheap in sainsburys it was basically cheaper than a magazine. I found it a fascinating look at a part of work and culture I know nothing about, I admire the writers honesty and am amazed that he survived those crazy years he wrote about.
  • Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar children by ransom riggs http://www.amazon.co.uk/Miss-Peregrines-Home-Peculiar-Children-ebook/dp/B004FGMDOQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419432165&sr=1-1&keywords=miss+peregrine%27s+home+for+peculiar+children – Again this is a beautiful book it is part strange story and part picture book. Although the pictures are all Victorian oddities and freak show children, the pictures add to the strangeness of the story. It is a book about a journey that really stuck with me when I read it, again I look forward to reading the next book in this series.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelmen http://www.amazon.co.uk/Complete-MAUS-Art-Spiegelman/dp/0141014083/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419432191&sr=1-1&keywords=maus– This is one of those graphic novels that is on every must read list and is kind of accepted as a serious book even though it is all pictures. That said when I finally got around to reading it I realised just how good it really is. It is a truly incredible way of exploring the holocaust and makes it accessible to everyone. It is utterly engaging and does not shy away from showing you the true horror of the holocaust not one for the faint hearted.
  • Room http://www.amazon.co.uk/Room-Picador-40th-Anniversary-Editn-ebook/dp/B0073HNNE8/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419432221&sr=1-1&keywords=room – I thought this was a really clever work of fiction, that has an interesting protagonist in it, as it gives a child eye view of a horrific situation, this way of telling a story of a kidnapping makes it more disturbing in a way. I also like the way of how it covers what happens after the kidnapping and how hard it is for families to repair themselves after such an awful event.
  • Vinland Saga (the manga) http://www.amazon.co.uk/Vinland-Saga-1-Makoto-Yukimura-ebook/dp/B00CCOO6RK/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419432253&sr=1-1&keywords=vinland+saga+1 – This is proof that there’s a grown up side to manga and truly fits my obsession with all things Norse. This story doesn’t entirely fit the Vinland saga, but it is an interesting reflection on life in the dark ages that covers a range of different countries.
  • Seconds  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Seconds-Bryan-Lee-OMalley/dp/1906838887/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419432282&sr=1-1&keywords=Seconds– Brian lee o malleys new offering after he finished the Scott pilgrim series, he is one of my favourite comic authors and this book truly fits his unique style. Seconds is a beautifully drawn tale of growing up and growing old.
  • Orange is the New black http://www.amazon.co.uk/Orange-New-Black-Womens-Prison-ebook/dp/B00DHHFKE4/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419432315&sr=1-1&keywords=orange+is+the+new+black – I bought this after getting addicted to the Netflix series, and being surprised that there was a book of it. I was even more surprised to discover that it was a work of non-fiction. Piper really existed and she has produced a funny and engaging discussion of Americas prison system, whilst still pointing out the problems with it.
  • Entry island  http://www.amazon.co.uk/Entry-Island-Peter-May-ebook/dp/B00EIFS5T6/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419432341&sr=1-1&keywords=entry+island– I love Peter mays writing because he does crime that isn’t run of the mill, his works of fiction link to history and tend to be more about the characters and their interactions than the crime itself. Entry island veers away from is usual Scottish base and is set on the Madeline islands in Canada, although it does link back to the highland clearances. I like how he presents you with different aspects of history to ones you usually learn about and how he searches out new interesting and beautiful locations for his crime novels
  • American Interior  http://www.amazon.co.uk/American-Interior-Quixotic-Journey-Evans-ebook/dp/B00GED8DUG/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1419432390&sr=1-1&keywords=american+interior– This one our alternative guardian first book award this year, despite not making it off the longlist of the actual guardian first book award. This will be getting a further blog post in feb when I have been to see his American tour. This is a well told work of non fiction about strange journeys and felt puppets.

This concludes my list of the 12 best books of 2014 however there are also some honourable mentions that didn’t or couldn’t make the final list and they are

Hebrides, I am Malala, The iron druid series, under the dome, Sex criminals, Young skins and flowers of evil.

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The 10 books that have made me most angry in 2014

So far this year I have read 285 books, not all of them have stood out for the right reasons, so I’ve decided to make a list of the 10 worst books I have read this year, basically these books have annoyed me or made me downright angry in one way or another. Before I start with this list, it is entirely subjective, it is just books I disliked and became quite grumpy with, and would advise people to avoid there are some books considered to be almost classics on this list.

Onto the list the 10 worst of 2014 in no particular order:

  1. Hare with the amber eyes – http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=hare+with+the+amber+eyes – I genuinely love being part of my book group mostly because it makes me read new and different things, which is mostly awesome until you come to the hare with the amber eyes – normally met with rave reviews I hated this book it is pretentious and egotistical and it doesn’t really tell you a lot about the items themselves. There is an interesting chapter about being in Vienna during the war but it doesn’t redeem the book from being in the most part a work of self involved drivel. Now I realise I’m in a minority with this book on the whole my book group really enjoyed it and were fascinated with the concept of Netsuke and the idea of tracing your family history through an object, for some reason though me and this book did not get on and it was a pure battle of wills between me and it for me to finish.
  2. Your Lover – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Your-Lover-1-v/dp/1600091903/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418587125&sr=8-1&keywords=your+lover+manga – the only manga on this list, I really enjoy reading manga, especially really romantic cheesy manga’s so when I picked this up at the local library I thought I was in for a treat. However it is a creepily written story about someone who wants to date his dead brothers ex that has far too many cheesy exposition moments that look like bad mills and boon cover photo’s see the example posted below for the true horror of this mangayourlover
  3. Beyond the past (pam charles) – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Beyond-Past-Pam-Charles-ebook/dp/B00LBFWP42/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418586787&sr=8-1&keywords=pam+charles This book was so bad I didn’t even finish reading it but it makes this list because another book I read this year was nominated for the bad sex in fiction award and although at the time I thought the nomination may have been slightly deserved I tried reading this horror of a book and realised that it may have been hard done too (no pun intended) the book reads like an attempt at novel writing made by a second rate GCSE student and has a sex scene where a penis is referred to as an “erect piece”. This crime novel is one to avoid indeed. Another exceptionally irritating thing about this book is her constant references to rugby all the men have the physiques of rugby players, were rugby players or are rugby players which is all well and good but you do not need to be reminded of it every other sentence, there are other descriptions.
  4. Bricks and Mortals – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bricks-Mortals-Great-Buildings-People/dp/1408843668/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418588015&sr=8-1&keywords=bricks+and+mortals I Read this book because it was longlisted for the guardian first book award this year, I was excited to read it as it is billed as a journey through architecture by looking at 10 famous buildings. However it isn’t that book, it reads as an overly wordy attempt at an undergraduate thesis. It uses the buildings as a jumping off point and then doesn’t discuss the building at all it also is very keen at forcing the authors opinions on you as fact a thing that always makes me angry with books. In fact I am still angry that I wasted a significant amount of my time reading this book. Also I don’t mind learning new words or even looking words up one of my favourite guardian books last year was Money and I basically had to sit with a dictionary while I read it, but in this book it feels like he throws in big complicated words to make himself feel clever he uses them to describe perfectly simple concepts and this again annoys me, what the hell is deliquescence anyway?
  5. The good inn – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Good-Inn-Black-Francis/dp/1906838860/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418588471&sr=8-1&keywords=the+good+inn – the first of 2 comics on this list and one that promised so much it is published by self made hero (my favourite publishers) and is co-written by the pixies frontman. This is more novel with pictures than graphic novel and has a really excellent premise linking an incident on a battleship with nitrocellulose and the first porn film. However it all goes down hill from there the story doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t link the 2 events together very well. This is so annoying because it has the potential to be really brilliant and it isn’t even mediocre
  6. After me comes the flood – http://www.amazon.co.uk/After-Comes-Flood-Sarah-Perry/dp/1846689457/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418588861&sr=8-1&keywords=after+me+comes+the+flood – Another Guardian longlisted book, billed as chilling and psychological this is a bit of a hot mess of a book. Again it is an idea with promise about a strange journey, however unlike some novels that will be mentioned in my top 10 list this doesn’t achieve it. The book has a nonsensical plot and 2 dimensional characters that you are not interested in, it just doesn’t feel like the book goes anywhere. A book that feels like it is trying to hard to be art and when books so obviously try to do that they very rarely succeed
  7. The Magicians – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Magicians-Book-1-Lev-Grossman/dp/0099534444/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1418589345&sr=1-1&keywords=the+magician+lev+grossman Another book group book although I don’t think they will be grumpy with me for putting this one in as they didn’t like it either. I felt that this book read like an Americanised harry potter where they annoyingly shout USA USA! Repeatedly whilst learning about magic. Again there is a gem of a decent idea in this book and I don’t know if books where the basic premise is good but the writing is bad annoy me more than just terrible books. It feels like this is lazily written if he had put more effort in there might have been something worth reading here as it is, it’s one to avoid. In fact if you want to read a book with the title Magician read the Magician by Raymond Feist it’s much better.
  8. The Iceberg – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Iceberg-Memoir-Marion-Coutts/dp/1782393501/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418716600&sr=8-1&keywords=the+iceberg – I feel quite bad, saying something horrible about this book as is a work of non-fiction about the authors husband dying of a brain tumour. However the book is written weirdly as a kind of self involved work of art and doesn’t really due justice to the terrible things that happened to them.
  9. Unbearable lightness of being – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Unbearable-Lightness-Being-Milan-Kundera/dp/0571135390/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418717834&sr=8-1&keywords=unbearable+lightness+of+being This book is so terrible I don’t know where to start – this is billed as a modern classic but reads like a more childish and whiny version of the catcher in the rye, with a horrible set of protagonists that it is impossible to like. I feel like some of the concepts in this book are similar to the work of the graphic novelist Jason (definitely someone to check out) however Jason manages to convey depths of emotions and complicated character development with no words and Milan Kundera cannot touch that level of art with the thousands of words he has written here. I feel that this is going to be another book like war and peace in a couple of years time when you ask me about it I’ll say oh yeah I’ve read that it’s a book based in the Czech republic.
  10. Fog town – http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fogtown-Vertigo-Crime-Bradley-Rader/dp/1401229506/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1418717855&sr=8-1&keywords=fogtown – This is the second graphic novel on the list, one of Vertigo’s trade crime paperbacks, like Ian Rankin’s dark entries (which is awesome). This comic is written in the film nourish style made popular in comics by books like sin city, however that is where the comparison ends. This is a clichéd attempt at writing a noirish detective story that doesn’t really work, despite it frantically signposting its noir ishness. The story is silly and again doesn’t really link into being a cogent plot.
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guardian first book award – joys of a book group

I have the great good fortune to be a member of a book group, we all met last year when judging the Guardian first book award for Waterstones, liked each other and carried on meeting once a month after. When the Guardian award came around again this year some of us got chosen to be on the official judging panel and those of us who didn’t formed an alternative reading group alongside.

Having experienced both ways of judging them I feel I preferred our alternative group, we did spread the reading process over a few more weeks but we still read all 11 books on the Longlist, we critiqued all of them and selected our winner. We also decided to hold an awards ceremony and so we cheekily contacted all the authors in the book award and asked them if they wanted to be involved, not really expecting many replies. We got some lovely e:mails back saying people couldn’t attend but we also managed to arrange skype conversations with 2 of the authors, Matthew Thomas and May Lan Tan.

As a judging group we had mixed feelings about these authors, most of us enjoyed Matthew Thomas’s, We are not ourselves, even though it just missed out on our top 5. We felt it was a really readable book that tackles the difficult topic of Alzheimers really well, and we had great discussions about the characters in the books especially the main character Eileen. With May Lan Tan, the official group enjoyed her collection of short stories more than the official group did and we all felt she had maybe been let down with the way the book was presented.

On our Awards night this week we chatted to both these authors and they were both genuinely lovely people who spent a good amount of their time chatting to us, even with technical difficulties at times. We learnt a lot from the discussions, including that life as an author even one selected for a prestigious awards such as the Guardian doesn’t mean you hit the big time financially, all the longlisted authors could really use your support in getting their books heard of. We also managed to share a passion for reading and chat about favourite authors and influences with both authors which was really enlightening. It was great to hear that they both have a next work in the pipeline and I know that as a book group they both have new followers who will be eagerly looking out for their next novels.

It was great to see that they both have an excellent sense of humour about their writing and life as an author as well. We asked May Lan Tan how she felt about being nominated for the bad sex award for her book and she said that had it have been closer to the first book award she’d have attended the ceremony which is ace.

Guardian reviews for their books posted below

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/14/things-to-make-and-break-may-lan-tan-review

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/27/we-are-not-ourselves-matthew-thomas-review-novel

We all know that when we love a band or music group that they earn more money from their tours and merchandise than they often do from the music, and I think with current times Authors are starting to realise that they need to make themselves a presence both on social media and in the real world to ensure that they garner more sales for their novels and to ensure that they gain interest, there are more books published in a year than even I can read (and I’ve read 276 books this year so far) so authors are having to find ways to stand out in the crowd, by agreeing to talk with us I think these guys are showing the pleasant side of authors, they care about the people who take time to read their  work and this shows in the way they use their time to talk to a lowly book group in Leeds UK, hopefully this blog (and the links below to their work) will show others that there are genuinely pleasant authors out there, I have met others in my travels, Elly Griffiths and Peter May stand out as other genuinely nice people as well as excellent authors, and maybe encourage some more sales for their books (we are not ourselves, and things to make and break, Amazon links below)

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Are-Not-Ourselves-Matthew-Thomas/dp/0007548214/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1417594551&sr=8-1&keywords=we+are+not+ourselves

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Things-Make-Break-May-Lan-Tan/dp/1909585017/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1417594579&sr=8-6&keywords=things+to+make+or+break

Also if you love reading join a book group, its one of the genuine highlights of my month and its great to meet people with similar crazy habits and love of reading.

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I am Malala

I don’t ordinarily read autobiographies but when Malala won the peace prize we did some work at school in PSHCE about her and looked at excerpts of her autobiography so I decided to buy it and read it. Working in any form of education can leave you a little jaded about young people but this book will surely change that.

Written by Malala and a co-author it tells the story of the talibinisation of the SWAT valley in Pakistan and it’s rich history. Leading up to the events that left Malala shot in the head in the back of her school bus.

The book is both readable and educational if like me you knew very little about Pakistan and because of the help from an adult reads well. However I feel the adult author was there for support and guidance as Malalas voice comes through quite strongly.

This is a book about mistakes in politics that allow for extremism to take place as much as it is about the story of a young girl who campaigns for education. She is one special young lady, who campaigned fearlessly even when she and her family were threatened and continues to speak up now.

Prior to being shot by the Taliban she had already set up the Malala fund http://www.malala.org/#home

With monies she had gained from wining a peace prize in Pakistan as well as other awards. It is also a story about good parenting and how supportive inspirational parents can produce amazing children. She is as amazing as she is because she has her family supporting her in everything she does and that’s something we all need in life.

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