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.

Joe Country (Slough House #6) by Mick Herron

Cover of Joe Country (Slough House #6)

I feel like I might get lynched for saying that I didn’t think this was quite as good as I expected it to be. I love the characters and they were great here, the regulars were regular and the deaths upset me. The plot, however, was, forgettable, and a week after reading it I can’t remember much of the detail about it. It didn’t seem as closely tied to current affairs as previous books have, but maybe that’s more to do with *gestures at state of world in May 2020* than anything to do with the book. Obviously I’m not expecting the author to have pandemic forecasting capabilities, though it does occur to me that getting a take on *gestures again at 2020 normality* from the likes of the slow horses will be an interesting thing to look forward to in the next couple of years.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Zig Zag Girl (Stephens & Mephisto Mystery, #1) by Elly Griffiths

Cover of The Zig Zag Girl (Stephens & Mephisto Mystery, #1)

I’ve enjoyed (on the whole) Elly Griffiths’ other series about Ruth Galloway but haven’t looked at this one before. Well, I didn’t look at it now. I listened to the audiobook. Just the right level of intriguing and entertaining for my news-addled brain to cope with at the moment. The last audiobook I enjoyed was a World War II story, this one is post-war Brighton, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’m finding that kind of historical setting relaxing at the moment. Everything will be alright in the end, somehow or other. I worked out one of the elements of the story before the characters did, which made me feel clever for seeing the clues, but not the main mystery plot bit which still surprised me nicely. I liked the characters and will be back for more.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

How to Argue With a Racist by Adam Rutherford

Cover of How to Argue With a Racist

As expected this was an excellent book full of explanations for why racist beliefs are a load of rubbish, which I won’t try and summarise for fear of arsing them up. It’s not a long book and it’s one I’m planning to keep on hand to make sure I get my facts right in future. I’m more of a “roll your eyes and keep well away from the racists” type but it’s good to be certain that the science is on my side all the same should I feel brave enough to start arguing.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Us by David Nicholls

Cover of Us

Not really sure what I think of this one to be honest. I found it all a bit of a mixed emotional bag. My partner asked me what I thought of it when I was just getting into it and I commented that I found it odd how much high praise it seemed to have garnered, including a Booker prize listing. I said then that if it had been written by a woman I thought it would just have been in the “chick lit” corner, nothing special. Perhaps I’m being gullible to the review quotes on the cover etc which are, of course, supposed to make you think it’s the best … book … ever.

But then the central character seemed to be set up as someone to make fun of, even though he was the narrator. A clumsy scientist who didn’t quite get the wider world. I liked him, and understood a lot of his dilemmas and his social awkwardness. I didn’t want him to be a comedy character, I wanted the book to make you understand people like him.

But maybe it did. Towards the end of the book everything got smoother and nicer and he fitted better into the in-book world (though I thought the very end of the book was weird and a bit out of place with the rest of the narrative).

So overall I enjoyed the book but had a lot of “but”s about it, I enjoyed the book but not the story perhaps would be a better way of putting it. I think it just hit a few resonant frequencies in my brain and I can’t quite make sense of how I feel about it.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Ruin Beach (DI Ben Kitto, #2) by Kate Rhodes

Cover of Ruin Beach (DI Ben Kitto, #2)

I read the first of Kate Rhodes other series a few years back and enjoyed it, but never got round to reading more of that series and it felt like it might be one of those series where you’d be missing the full value if you’d forgotten what was happening in the book before. When I saw she had another series going I picked this one up to try it out. It turned out to be the second in the series but that’s ok with me.

This is more of a straight forward police detective murder mystery than I was expecting, but I think that means I’m more likely to read another in the series! The setting is the Scilly Isles, which in this case means lots of sea, scuba diving and shipwrecks. The detective is Ben Kitto, thirtysomething and returned to his home from undercover police work in London (I’m not clear if that might be something covered more in the first book of the series) and generally I found him amiable enough. He felt like a character you could get to know over time rather than someone who puts all his cards on the table at once, again that’s something good for a series character.

There were parts of the plot that I thought were a bit weak, but I don’t want to give spoilers and it wasn’t anything book-breaking, perhaps I just wasn’t paying enough attention, it wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment. I’d definitely like to read more of this series.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.