MI5 and Me: A Coronet Among the Spooks by Charlotte Bingham

Cover of MI5 and Me: A Coronet Among the Spooks

I picked this up randomly at the library thinking that the story of a young girl working for the secret services in the 1950s sounded interesting. I realised the author had written lots of probably romance-ish books that I’ve never read, but that’s fine, I often think that older female authors seem to have much more outrageous lives than the ones they write about. I missed the blurb on the cover telling me it was a “stone cold comic classic” though.

I can’t really say I enjoyed it. I mostly found it stupid rather than funny, that’s probably me rather than the book as I’m never very good with funny books anyway. I was never quite sure if I was in “truth is stranger than fiction” territory or how much it was embellished or if any of it was true to start with. It had its moments but I only really finished it so I could tick it off.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes by Adam Rutherford

Cover of A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes

Loved this. It took me a while to get into the stride of it, but once I did it was pretty much unputdownable. One of those books I want to absorb so much of in order to have coherent evidence based arguments to throw at idiots (or the unenlightened at least, not everyone I argue with is an idiot after all, I can’t be bothered to waste time talking with the completely closed-minded.) I read this from the library but I’m pretty certain I’ll be buying the author’s next book(s) so I can keep them on hand if they look as useful and good as this one.

If I had to pick one argument to take away from this one and try to keep in my brain it would be the evidence that leads to the conclusion: “What is unequivocal is that the colloquial and traditional descriptions of race that are commonly used in the West are not accurately reflected in the underlying genetics”. Yes, we can all look at a person and describe them using racial terminology but the designations are all seen through our own cultural filters (though I think I have some mild version of face-blindness so I’m rubbish at guessing people’s heritage by anything other than which Pantone chip their skin matches), but genetically there’s no way to look at our genes and neatly classify people into any of the taxonomies that the racists would like.

After I finished the book I looked up human genetic clustering and found the maths of the attempts at genetic clustering all super interesting. Would you like two races? The boundaries could be drawn in any number of places, maybe we could say the native Americans, Australians, Asians are one race and everyone else is in the other. Or seven races? That makes the Kalash people of the Himalayas split out as their own race? Apparently the racists like to pick out the attempt at “five genetic clusters” which looks most like the ones they think exist a priori, but why is five the magic number? And none of these clusters look to split the white European people out into a race of their own which seems to be what the racists I see in the UK at least would like.

Anyway, if you want the cohesive argument on this, as well as a vast array of other interesting things that fall out of our genetics, then read the book, there’s a lot more to it than this. I’m just jotting things down to jog my own memory of an excellent book here.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

What the Luck?: The Surprising Role of Chance in Our Everyday Lives by Gary Smith

Cover of What the Luck?: The Surprising Role of Chance in Our Everyday Lives

I picked this up because I’d enjoyed reading Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data, and Other Ways to Lie with Statistics by the same author last year. This one was lighter all round; more accessible probably but also focused on just one concept really.

It’s a couple of hundred pages of exploration of regression to the mean. An example he uses is when you praise one group of students for doing well, and shout at a group who do badly. When you come back the next day the praised group generally do worse, and the shouted at group do better. Does this mean that shouting is a more effective tool than praise? No, it’s just that generally people who turn in performances far from the average are really more average than their performance showed. If they do really well they will do worse next time whatever, and the poor performers will probably improve anyway. (Side note: so just be nice to everyone ok? Not mathematical insight, just human.)

Like his other book this was a bit heavy on the examples from American sports for me, but there were plenty of other topics covered. I didn’t need convincing of the theory behind regression to the mean but I enjoyed the read anyway and the surprisingly takeaway for me was how uplifting the idea that “it’s more average than you think” could be.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Murder Most Unladylike: A Wells & Wong Mystery (Wells & Wong Mystery, #1) by Robin Stevens

Cover of Murder Most Unladylike: A Wells & Wong Mystery  (Wells & Wong Mystery, #1)

Adding these write-ups of my backlog in no particular order, just the one that most leaps up as being remembered gets written about first. If I can remember how to structure sentences that is; that last one puts me in doubt.

I borrowed this from my daughter’s bookshelves – she read it ages back. It’s a mystery set in a girl’s school in the 1930s and I know it’s been well received. I was intrigued as to how the school setting would be handled by a modern author, I read plenty of original 1930s school stories as a child and in retrospect they were often formulaic, class-ist, sexist, racist and probably a lot more. And I was also interested in how the murder mystery element would be handled in a book aimed at pre-teens.

I’m pleased to say that both my worries were assuaged. Making the narrator non-white and an outsider in the school system – she’s from Hong Kong – was a great move of the author’s. Rather than just smoothing over the 1930s sensibilities and making everyone act nicely the issue is addressed head-on in the way the narrator is treated by some of the other characters in the book. And the mystery too is very well set up and resolved. Obviously I’m not going to give away the plot but I was pleased it was set up as definitely a murder with no hedging of “maybe it was an accident” to confuse the reader, and that the solution was something that made sense from a 1930s point of view but that would resonate with readers today and highlight some of the things that have changed in the last 85 years.

All in all it was very well done. I expected it to be pretty good, and was satisfied.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers by Louise Candlish

Cover of The Sudden Departure of the Frasers

I read another book by the same author last year that surprised me with how unexpectedly good its ending and plot resolution was so I picked this up from the library to try another by the same author. There are a lot of similar features between the two stories – they both have double sided narratives, two stories told at different times by two different characters, and figuring out how the two sides are going to mesh together is most of the mystery. And then both books are kind-of estate agency thrillers involving people buying houses in odd circumstances and involve a cast of neighbours who probably know more than they are saying.

I didn’t think this was nearly as good a story as Our House but it was a quick and easy read that entertained me one sunny weekend in the garden. In a way it’s nice to read an older book by an author you enjoyed that doesn’t make you want to go and read all their other older books, and I’ll certainly be trying her newer books anyway.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Venetian Masquerade by Philip Gwynne Jones

Cover of The Venetian Masquerade

Third in a series that I’m enjoying. One of those books I’d hesitate to recommend to anyone else though because I think the things that I like about it are a bit too “it just hits the right note for me” and might not work for others. A couple of months after reading I find that I’ve forgotten most of the details and am just left with the memory of a good read with characters who are becoming good friends, and that’s just fine. I don’t feel like I have enough ongoing series in my reading timeline at the moment and this is a welcome addition.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

Cover of The Lost Man

I was pleased to see this wasn’t a series book as I’d found the second of the Aaron Falk books less engaging than the first, though not enough to put me off reading it if it had been! I enjoyed this as much, if not more, than I did The Dry.

The atmosphere and heat of Australia really came through in this book. For those of us who live in far more compact locales it’s difficult to imagine the distances involved but the explanations of how people could drive for several hours and still be on their own land, of the houses having refrigerated storerooms the size of village shops with only very occasional deliveries and of how much water and supplies you take out in the car with you every time you leave home really got over to me just how isolated the places in the book are. It’s one of those books where the location is almost the star of the show, so the plot needs to be really good to stand up to it.

And I’m glad to say that I thought the mystery was pretty decent here too. The characters seemed like real people, mostly likeable but sometimes flawed, and thought that the way that their backstory slowly pieced itself together and changed your opinion of some of them as you learnt new details was laid out very well.

After three books Jane Harper’s definitely made it onto my list of must-buy authors.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado P?rez

Cover of Invisible Women: Exposing data bias in a world designed for men

I just saw Caroline Criado Perez tweet that she wasn’t sure how she felt about becoming “the head of feminism’s toilet division.” and there is so much more to this book about equality that I understand her equivocality to this title. But first, about the toilets…

Toilet facilities are a case where it is blindingly obvious to almost everyone that equal provision of utilities between genders results in inequality – everyone has at least seen a long queue for the ladies loo when there’s no queue at the gents. Those queues are your data and the data are mostly ignored. Women simply take longer in the toilet (we have more clothes to remove, we have periods, we get pregnant, we are more often the ones taking small children with us, we don’t usually have the option of going up against the wall outside etc.) and this isn’t taken into account when planning buildings. I think the conclusion was that you need double the floor area of female toilets to male to make things fair. And yet it’s still rare to find a public building that’s taken this into consideration.

And this book is piled high with examples of other things where “a level playing field” turns out to be heavily skewed in favour of males when you look at the data, as well as plenty of examples where we can see women are being shortchanged but the data about the shortchanging isn’t even being collected. I was expecting to spend my time reading this book nodding my head and agreeing, I wasn’t expecting to be quite so outraged by some of the things I discovered.

I’ve lived my life as a woman in a man’s world, aware of it but mostly just trying to get on and be “as good as the boys”. That’s something I was often told as a child which rankles in retrospect, why did the boys get to be perceived as good at boy-things by default and I had to try to keep up? Why did I feel guilty when I liked doing girl-things because they weren’t seen as important as boy-things? Anyway, self-psychoanalysis aside, even as someone who thought she was doing pretty well in the world as it is, I was shocked to find how steeply sloped the playing field can be and I think everyone ought to read the book.

One example that’s stuck with me in the weeks since I read the book is about medicine. Most drugs are tested on young men, and the reasoning behind this seems to be basically “women are too complicated, they menstruate and might get pregnant” which whilst you can see that no one wants to repeat what happened with Thalidomide and controls on drug trials are a good thing, they are also no excuse for ignoring half the population entirely. As a result of the bias in testing, drugs tend to work well in men and you can see the difference if you look at the side effects reported by men and women. Men’s side-effects tend to be very rare (though sometimes major effects) whereas a very common side-effect for women is “the drug doesn’t work”. But plenty of drugs don’t get past the first stage of testing in men if the men report that they don’t work, how many of those might have greater efficacy in women? I’m utterly horrified by this before you even start to look at how drugs for conditions like period pain, PMT, endometriosis have been investigated less than ones for conditions that also affect men. I remember being alarmed by the “not for use by pregnant or breastfeeding women” labels on over the counter drugs, plenty of these were taken by women I knew anyway, there needs to be better data collected to make better advise than a blanket ban.

All round it’s an excellent read, as well written as it is researched and deserves a place on your bookshelf. (Though it hasn’t been shelved here, it’s sat on my coffee table so I can easily pick it up and quote bits of it, it’s that sort of book.)

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.

The Horseman: The West Country Trilogy by Tim Pears

Cover of The Horseman: The West Country Trilogy

I’ve really enjoyed plenty of Tim Pears’ other books, and this one seems to be coming in for mountains of praise, so I wasn’t expecting to feel so ‘meh’ about it. It’s set just before the first world war and is the first volume of a trilogy. I felt like I should have waited a few years until there was a three-in-one edition. I’d agree that the writing, the atmosphere, the characters are all top-notch, but still. This felt like a prequel rather than like a whole book and I don’t currently feel any desire to pick up the second and/or the third.

More information about this book can be found on goodreads.