On Chapel Sands: My mother and other missing persons by Laura Cumming

Cover of On Chapel Sands: My mother and other missing persons

I picked this up not really sure if I was going to like it but it turned out to be exactly my kind of thing. A family memoir that tells one family’s story but details a whole swathe of social history while it’s at it. It’s very well written and nicely structured, and a great mystery besides. The author holds back on everything she knows to reveal it more-or-less as she learned of it herself. As the subtitle says it’s the story of her mother, who went missing as a toddler on a Lincolnshire beach, and was later found a dozen miles away. Like any mystery I don’t want to give the details of the plot away. In order to figure out what was going on on the beach that day the author and her family have to put together a whole heap of clues, some of them obvious, some of them red-herrings, some of them very subtle. I had an idea where the plot was going, and just enough of my ideas were right to make me feel clever, and there were still twists to be surprised by. Forgive me for treating this non-fiction book like a fictional one for a minute, what I’m trying to say is that it’s well written and very readable. You can’t forget that these are real people’s lives here. This is one person’s story, but it’s also the story of a the society that person lived in, which makes it familiar to many, and it’s well worth a read.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker

Cover of Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors

Really good stuff. A very entertaining look at all kinds of ways that maths get misused and abused and generally cocked up. A lot of stories that I hadn’t heard before, and the “comedy” of the title is mostly correct. There are plenty of cases where getting the misunderstanding maths is a tragedy and some of those are certainly in here but mostly this book concentrates on the amusing ones.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Venetian Gothic (Venice #4) by Philip Gwynne Jones

Cover of Venetian Gothic (Venice #4)

This is a fun series. It’s turning into one of those where I go back to find out what’s going on for the main characters, rather than the mystery, but that’s fine, and I thought this was a good mystery. I like the way that Nathan’s more of an amateur sleuth than most crime series investigators are these days, but his job as honorary consul makes it feasible that he does get involved in numerous murders. It’s kind of cozy without being twee, and very enjoyable.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Dead Land (V.I. Warshawski, #20) by Sara Paretsky

Cover of Dead Land (V.I. Warshawski, #20)

One of my favourite series of all time and still going strong. Look elsewhere if you want a critical analysis of it! Maybe in another series I might complain about some of the recurring plot points in these books (like stop trying to kill yourself sometimes VI?) but as it stands I’m happy that Vic is still out there fighting corporate crime and standing up for the little guys.

Whilst reading I had a discussion about how old she’s supposed to be now, I know her birthdate got retconned at some point, my view is that she’s ageing at about half of the real-world rate. I think she was 30ish in the early books of the 1980s. That was going on 40 years ago, and I don’t think she’s aged any more than 20 years though I’m not sure which side of fifty she’s on now, it could be less than that. I guess at some point I’m going to overtake her! And as for Mr Contreras… I suspect he’ll still be pulling his pipe-wrench out in his 100s.

It was fun to spot the cameo by Stu Shiffman too, authorised by Andi Shechter before her death last year. These bits always make me smile.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data by David Spiegelhalter

Cover of The Art of Statistics: Learning from Data

A really interesting book, it’s definitely down the textbook-ish end of the popular science shelf but I got a lot out of it. There’s a lot about communication of statistics in here and one standout point for me was something that Spiegelhalter buries in a footnote as if it’s a bit off-topic which I don’t really think it is: The Groucho Principle. I forget his exact wording but I’m thinking of it as “if a statistic has been brought to your attention there’s probably something wrong with it”. As the numerate one among my family and friends I find I’m always the one saying “well, yes, maybe, but” to numbers in news stories, always being cynical and looking for the problems with the story being told. It’s an ingrained habit and I was doing it to the examples in this book too. There’s a section on storytelling with statistics that includes a chart showing the average age of people having their first child compared to first having sex between the 1930s and the 1990s. It’s labelled as showing how the time period in which effective contraception is required has changed over the years, but in my head it tells a story of how the availability of effective contraception has changed the way people’s lives have shifted over the years.

I’m not a statistician, I studied mathematics but found statistics very dry and boring when I was at school and university, not enough computers in it for me in the 1990s. The standard statistics teaching methods involving tossing coins and pulling coloured balls out of bags were really tedious to me, the author points this out but then continues to use them quite often. Fortunately there are a lot more examples, chiefly from medical science, that are a lot more interesting, I wish these examples had been more prevalent in my introduction to statistics courses. For example, a test for cancer is said to be 90% accurate, by which they mean that 90% of people with the cancer will get a positive test result, and 90% of the people without the cancer will get a negative result. Say that 1% of the population actually have the cancer. If I get a positive test result what’s the chance that I have cancer? I think most people would say 90% sounds like a reasonable answer but the chance is actually more like 9% because of how many more people fall into the “test positive but don’t have cancer” bucket than the “test positive and do have cancer” bucket. That kind of example is far more interesting to me than the odds of me getting two red socks out of my drawer on a dark morning.

Statistics is something I wish I had a better handle on and this book has given me a good bit more friction to hold on to. I got a little annoyed with the way some things are couched in “sorry, this is just hard” terms later in the book, it seemed to be missing the point of the book which should be to explain these things so that they can be understood. Final, probably only interesting to me, fact: I discovered in the course of reading the book, and exploring some of the topics more deeply, that David Spiegelhalter’s doctoral supervisor was my personal tutor in my first year at university. Sometimes I wish I could tell 18 year old me to pay more attention to the world she lived in, but there are only so many things you can pay attention to at one time and I seem to have done alright out of the ones that caught my eye at the time.

This was an interesting, mostly very readable, and definitely useful book.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Blood Card (Stephens & Mephisto Mystery, #3) by Elly Griffiths

Cover of The Blood Card (Stephens & Mephisto Mystery, #3)

I went straight onto this after finishing Smoke & Mirrors, only being slightly derailed by the change of narrator. He’s made Edgar’s accent rougher than I felt it should be, but on the whole I think he was better at the range of voices required for an audiobook.

The plot here was distinctly ropey – it’s 1953 and there are Coronation upsetting schemes afoot. The scale of the book never seemed quite right, was it going to turn out to be a small murder mystery or an international anarchist conspiracy? Edgar gets a side trip to New York that seemed a bit strange and out of place. I didn’t feel it was adequately explained by the plot and I wondered what was being set up here. Nothing came of it in this book. I know from her other series that Elly Griffiths likes to have her side stories play out over multiple books so maybe something more will happen in the future. There is also an intrigue being set up with regards to Ruby and Emma, and I think I know what’s going to happen with those two but the characters were ignorant to it in this book.

The weakest in the series so far, but it’s got me invested in the characters and I’ll be onto the next book to find out what happens next all the same.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James

Cover of The Sun Down Motel

A middle of the night e-library checkout that I thought was going to be a straight murder mystery but turned out to have a lot of ghost story about it. I generally avoid supernatural stories as every time I’ve tried them I get annoyed with gullible characters and deus ex machina nature of the plots. I stuck with this one though as it was providing me with much needed distraction. I figured I was better getting annoyed with fictional characters than than the reality inside my head.

It’s a story told switching between two viewpoints: Viv is a young woman far from home in 1982, working at a rundown motel in upstate New York; and Carly is her niece in 2017, about the same age as Viv was in 1982. Carly comes to the same (even more rundown) motel searching for answers about what happened to her aunt, Viv, who hasn’t been seen since 1982. The writing had some clunky phases in the beginning but flowed much better as the book went on, I found the characters all pretty believable even as they believed in the hauntings around them.

I kept thinking of the motel I worked in Maine for a summer in 1992, that was also rather rundown despite not being that old, and by the looks of its mostly terrible online reviews it hasn’t been updated much since (no reports of hauntings though!). As such I found the fact that Carly finds the exact same fixtures at the Sun Down Motel 35 years after Viv found them to be pretty believable. So the book felt like a bit of a weird old nostalgia trip for me, with some interesting characters, and I enjoyed the mystery plot, and I surprised myself by finding I could cope with the supernatural elements of it too.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Smoke and Mirrors (Stephens & Mephisto Mystery, #2) by Elly Griffiths

Cover of Smoke and Mirrors (Stephens & Mephisto Mystery, #2)

Years ago I stopped myself from reading series books back to back. It always ended with things I’d been really enjoying becoming stale and repetitive. However we live in weird times and I needed some stability and something to look forward to on a walk with an audiobook and DI Edgar Stephens and his magician friend Max Mephisto have kind of become my lockdown companions. A little soap opera that I am enjoying keeping going with. And maybe an audiobook is a different kind of repetitive to reading on the page anyway, hearing the words is soothing in a way that

This one concerns the disappearance of a couple of young teens just before Christmas 1951. I liked the new characters introduced here; a “lady policeman” (as the children in the book refer to her) is a good addition to the cast. Griffiths is good at characters and I thought that the children were especially well written.

I feel that mysteries that can be solved by a combo of a detective and a magician ought to be rather limited, though that kind of thing never stops dozens of other series. I have glimpsed that this series advances through time at a quick pace so perhaps it’ll all seem quite reasonable. I’m planning on sticking with it at any rate.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.