Quality debunking of poor scientific thinking

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

This is an important book with two main themes. The first is what really goes on behind medical trials – the placebo effect; how many trials are poorly designed; how their data is reported and manipulated; and then how the media takes it, twists it and sensationalises it. The second is his personal crusade against quackery in all its alternative therapy forms.
Goldacre is a proper doctor working in the NHS, and the book has grown out of his weekly column for the Guardian, also called Bad Science. Everything he’s written for them and loads more is on his website Bad Science.net.

The author is absolutely scathing about homeopathy, Gillian McKeith and all the so-called nutritionists, however he saves the best ’til last and tackles MRSA and MMR. Apart from all the flawed research, bad testing and manipulation of results, he is also highly contemptuous of all the bad reporting by non-scientists who whipped up the media frenzy which resulted in a huge rise in measles cases, and thousands upon thousands of non-vaccinated children. My daughter was MMR age when this was at its peak, and I remember telling other mums at toddlers that the right thing to do was to get the vaccinations.

The book was thought-provoking and an educational read for me. It’s one major failing was although it has notes/references at the back, it has no index, which would make it so much easier to refer back to. As a former devotee of homeopathic belladonna eyedrops for my hayfever, it’s still difficult to believe that the easing of symptoms I experienced were the placebo effect in action – however logic tells me it must be so. It was shocking to read about all the incompetence going on in the medical world, and if I’m honest Goldacre comes across as a little bit smug and pleased with himself about the great public service he’s doing – but someone does need to do it -so please do carry on Dr Ben!

The UK ABC of Amazon

I’m picking up on an item I saw in Gwen Dawson’s blog Literary License, where she refers to the predictive searching now on Amazon. Another US blogger came up with a list made by typing in the letters of the alphabet and seeing which books came up first. I thought I’d do the same for Amazon UK, and see if there were any big differences and/or surprises …

A is for audio books
B is for breaking dawn
D is for dan brown
E is for ebooks
F is for Freya North
G is for gardening
H is for harry potter
I is for ipod
K is for karin slaughter
L is for lee child
M is for martina cole
N is for nora roberts
T is for twilight
U is for usborne childrens books
V is for vampire
W is for wilbur smith
X is for x-men
Y is for yoga
Z is for zafon

There are many that appear on both lists – multiple Stephanie Meyer mentions, Dan Brown, Harry Potter, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, vampires, x-men, and yoga. The rest of the UK list is mostly comprised of crime and thrillers and general searches including the great British passion for ‘gardening’. There’s no room in the UK abc for non-fiction like Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers or the novel Pride and prejudice and zombies here, (although I do fancy reading the latter). The most pleasant surprise was to see the Oxford Reading Tree and Roald Dahl featuring, (the ORT is a popular literacy scheme for children). The rest was oh so predictable – I’m sure that all those thrillers will appear on the bestseller charts in all the papers.
Reflecting upon all this, it was actually rather a silly exercise, wasn’t it!

Feeding my inner geek

I’m still on my space kick, and this is one book I’d really like to have – Apollo 11 – Owner’s Workshop Manual. I’ve not actually seen it, but being a Haynes Manual, I would expect some detailed technical drawings, articles about the evolution of the design of the Lunar Module, and the Saturn V rocket that got them there, plus items on some of the procedures etc, etc, etc. It’s on my wishlist.


Back in the early 1980s when I rode a motorbike, I had a Honda CB250RS. This was the sporty cousin to the Superdream, with it’s four stroke, four valve engine and twin exhausts. Here it is zipped back and forwards from Norfolk where I worked at the time to Harlow, where the boyfriend du jour was – it served me well.

On the occasions when I didn’t have him around to help service it, the Haynes manual was invaluable to me being a non-mechanical. (Just in case there is anyone reading who knows this bike, you can just see that it has a round car headlamp, and not the flash rectangular one it came with. This was the result of dropping it after skidding on a huge freshly laid oil patch on the A11 at Thetford.)

Unfortunately no photos exist of me with my mean machine – I’d have loved to show off my red leather jacket and serious biker boots to you, so you’ll just have imagine it!

Boldly Going …

There are lots of great programmes on the TV at the moment celebrating the 40th anniversary of landing on the moon. I was nine when it happened, and remember watching the landing on the telly and being entranced by the whole event. I will still watch anything about space and I have many books on the subject, so I am loving it. The astronauts were so brave, it’s amazing they got there – and back. The whole golden age of space travel is hugely romantic, so I’ve trawled through my library to share some classic titles with you…

It took Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier, and then all the pioneering test pilots of the Mercury programme to get the space race going. Tom Wolfe’s wonderful book The Right Stuff tells the story of the men involved wonderfully, it was a marvellous film too.

Then by the time we were ready for a moon landing, Gene Kranz was in charge, in his marvellous white waistcoat, running his team in with real leadership under extreme pressure. The title of his 2000 memoir Failure is not an option turns out to be not something he ever said, but reflects his view about running Mission Control. Of course in the film Apollo 13, played by the brilliant Ed Harris, he does say, “We’ve never lost an American in space, we’re sure as hell not gonna lose one on my watch! Failure is not an option.”

A couple of other space books of interest that I have include :

A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin which tells the story of the Apollo programme.

Moon Dust: In Search of the Men who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith which tells the stories of the nine surviving men who have walked on the moon and how it affected them.

forallmankind1I’d also like to mention a wonderful film – For All Mankind. Released in 1992, this film is a montage of real footage from NASA, much of it previously unseen, from the various Apollo missions to make a record of a space flight. It really is the ‘right stuff’ and together with an ethereal soundtrack by Brian Eno, is an inspiring record of the era.

… and finally, if all these heroes are getting to much for you, and you’d like to read something fictional from the other camp, that is from the Russian point of view, Jed Mercurio’s novel Ascent tells the story of a Russian pilot who goes to the moon. Written in a thoughtful, ever so slightly detached style, this short novel is a joy, and for me had a real Russian feel (although I have no experience to back that up!). Mercurio is not afraid to use technical jargon without explanation, but that makes it more real, and totally without unnecessary padding.

* * * * *
I bought all my copies. To explore the above further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
The Right Stuff [1984] [DVD] [1983]
Failure is Not an Option by Gene Krantz
Apollo 13 (2 Disc Special Edition) [1995] [DVD]
A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth by Andrew Smith
For All Mankind [Masters of Cinema [DVD]
Ascent by Jed Mercurio

Grim but gripping …

Once Upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh

This book was totally gripping from the outset – the life experienced by the working class family within is truly grim; an unremitingly bleak existence, reinforced by a series of poor decisions and having to live with the consequences. Each time they pick themselves up, something else seems to happen to knock them down again. The novel covers big themes, mixed-race marriage, rape, drugs, drink, homosexuality, bigotry, it all happens to the Fitzgeralds, yet it is portrayed very realistically and you can’t help but feel for them.

Set in Warrington of the 1970s and 80s, it’s love at first sight for Robbie Fitzgerald, a red-headed club singer of Irish descent, and Susheela, a Malaysian trainee nurse, newly emigrated to make a life for herself in the land of plenty. They meet in the ER…

“Susheela had fallen in love with that man, and that nose. Each dent and bump told out their history. She’d been there, on duty, the night they wheeled him in, barely conscious, his nose splayed across his left cheekbone pumping blood into the stung slits of his eyes. … And she’d been there in the room later when his cast had peeled back to reveal his new face. She’d watched him confront the mirror and sensed his disappointment. … He seemed to shrink away from the dangerous edge his nose now lent his battle-scarred face, at odds with the tender and reticent soul underneath.”

Robbie and Susheela marry and have a son Vincent, Vinnie; five years later Susheela is pregnant again. But on the night he gets his big break and gets spotted by an agent at the Club, he’s late home, and the event happens that will colour their lives for ever. Susheela gets raped by a gang of racist thugs who break into their home.

All this has happened before page 40, leaving the rest of the novel to chart tell the family’s story through the next decades. Robbie leaves Sheila, as she becomes known, with the kids, sensitive Vinnie and live-wire Ellie. With a mostly absent father and a mother who doesn’t really understand the teen-scene, Vinnie and Ellie soon get into drugs and clubbing, and Vinnie is starting to explore the fringes of the gay scene. You can feel it will end in inevitable tragedy.

This is strong stuff and the author spares no punches, she tells it like it is. Although the novel is set in a particularly poor industrial area of England, you feel that similar stories have happened up and down the country to unfortunate families. Walsh was born in Warrington and got into ecstasy and clubbing before running away to Barcelona at sixteen, so you know she is writing from experience. I read an interesting interview and article about her here. This gritty novel, her second, was absolutely gripping from the start, and I would certainly read more by this exciting young author. (Book supplied by Librarything Early Reviewers programme).

A three-hanky novel…

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

I came to this novel knowing nothing at all about the plot other than it was a family drama; but I had read several recommendations of the book from respected sources. They all said that it was a novel best encountered fresh, that knowing would spoil the enjoyment of reading it.

I concur wholeheartedly. This is a fantastic book about love, loss and decisions which made me well up with tears repeatedly. Written for teens (there are adult themes), it charts the story of Mia, a young cellist, her musical family and rocker boyfriend – you’ll fall in love with all of them. Set in Oregon, their story is picked out in flashback over the course of a couple of days.

That’s all I can say about the story without spoiling it. It’s short enough to be read in one session. It will appeal to fans of Jodie Picoult’s family dilemma dramas, but it’s way better. A brilliant three-hanky novel.

If you need more urging (without spoilers) to read this book click here or here.

Moviewatch: An American city girl in the English countryside is not good for one’s stiff upper lip!

Easy Virtue

This adaptation of a Noel Coward play was great fun. It was full of great performances from an all-star cast, and some brilliant set pieces – involving a chihuahua, the can can, and a fabulous tango from Colin Firth, but I digress …

The roaring twenties are in full flow when John Whittaker has a whirlwind romance and brings his new American bride home to meet the family in their crumbling ancestral pile. Immediately a battle of wits ensues between his monster of a mother (the wonderfully clipped Kristin Scott Thomas) and Larita, a go-getter from Detroit (Jessica Biel). Colin Firth is the drop-out father still suffering from the stress of the Great War. Nearly everyone is either jealous or in awe of Larita who as a city girl, feels totally trapped in the countryside, but she plays them at their own game. Needless to say, there are skeletons in plenty of cupboards including her own to unearth! I also enjoyed a wry turn from Kris Marshall as the butler.

I totally missed this film when on at the cinema last year, but the DVD was a joy. The soundtrack was an odd thing though – packed mainly with the cream of Coward, but there were some twenties versions of modern songs cropping up which make you do a complete double take. It was enchanting, but with just enough seriousness to give you a rest between the comedy. I loved it.

A vivid dissection of middle-class life

In a Summmer Season by Elizabeth Taylor

Many have told me that I should read the books of Elizabeth Taylor – an author I’d not heard of until the publication of Nicola Beauman’s recent biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor by the wonderful Persephone Books.

Published in 1961, it follows one summer in the lives of a family living in the Thames Valley, with ‘The View’ of Windsor castle visible in the far distance. This is already prime commuter belt – every day the men go off to work on the train to their jobs in the city – well, everyone except Dermot that is. He is the young Irish thirty-something husband of forty-something well-off widow Kate. They live in some comfort with Kate’s sixteen year old daughter Louisa and twenty-two year old son Tom, her Aunt Ethel, and looked after by cook Mrs Meacock.

As the novel opens, Kate is on a duty visit to her new mother-in-law, Edwina, up in London for the day. Edwina is always trying to find a job for her youngest, who has never been able to settle at anything or anyone until he fell in love with Kate. I picked up this particular one for its striking cover photo, and was told by pal Helen, that it was about a woman who marries a much younger man – a toy boy! – well that sold it to me instantly.

In the first half of the movel we find out what makes them all tick – and frankly, it’s all about sex. Kate with her younger husband, Tom with his girlfriends, and Louisa’s growing awareness and crush on the young curate in the village. Aunt Ethel watches all these mostly repressed emotions and assesses it in her letters to her friend Gertrude – “When the sex goes Kate will think him no bargain”.

Then the Thorntons return from abroad. The Thorntons, Charles and Dorothea, were Kate and her first husband Alan’s best friends, and Tom had a thing for Minty, their daughter. Charles’ wife died and Kate is keen to make them feel at home again now they’re back in England. There are bound to be problems – as three’s a crowd – Charles and Kate are the same age, whereas Dermot is closer to the children in age and sometimes, outlook.

“They were walking in circles around each other, Kate thought – both Dermot and Charles. When she had introduced them, Dermot had shaken hands with an air of boyish respect, almost adding ‘Sir’ to his greeting, and Charles seemed to try and avoid looking at him or showing more than ordinary interest. Although he had not met him before, even as far away as Bahrain he had heard stories, and Kate, writing to tell him of her marriage, had done so in a defensive strain, as if an explanation were due and she could think of no very good one.”

The story is mainly told from Kate’s point of view, but we hear not only her voice, but her thoughts also – and the two are often opposite. In that terribly repressed middle-class way, everyone says one thing and means another. The author takes a scalpel to these relationships and dissects them with sensitivity and wit, bringing things to a climax with great skill. I can safely say this novel made an instant fan of me, and I wonder why I never discovered her before. (9/10)

A page-turning and fun Victorian melodrama

The Equivoque Principle by Darren Craske

Firstly, a word of explanation – Equivocation is the magician’s art making an outcome seem intended when in reality there are several – but all of which are prepared for. The punter doesn’t know this of course, and so is fooled every time when a card is forced on him, or his mind ‘read’. Having checked this out, it was clear that we would be in for a twisty, turny ride in this novel.

It’s 1853, a serial killer is on the loose in London, and the murders happen to coincide with the arrival of a travelling circus run by conjuror Cornelius Quaint. Unfortunately Prometheus, the troupe’s mute strongman, picks the wrong pub to drink in and ends up in jail as the only suspect. Cornelius together with his valet Butter, and clairvoyant Madame Destine must find a way to free him. But from the moment they start investigating, it is clear that there are convoluted plots afoot involving events from Quaint’s past and that the killings are no coincidence.

Quaint is a striking hero – a magician in his fifties, a gentleman who has seen the world, yet is seemingly content for now to run the circus. He speaks in a way that reminds me of the late, great James Mason – slightly clipped and formal, always emphatic. He is ever the showman and also fiercely protective of his circus troupe. Prometheus, the strongman is also well-drawn, but I found it harder to engage with Madame Destine who also plays a large part. It would also have been nice to see how the mysterious Eskimo valet Butter ended up working for Quaint. Now as this is a Victorian melodrama, we have a motley collection of bad-guys – ranging from the pantomime villain Bishop to the psychopathic murderer himself and the stooge of a police commissioner too. Their actions keep the plot moving along at a rip-roaring speed, and all the twists and turns keep you guessing right the way through, applying the techniques of the title.

This debut novel is the first of a trilogy involving Quaint and although it has some rough edges, it was huge fun to read. The cover proudly proclaims as good as Boris Akunin or your money back – I’ve only read the first Fandorin novel, but fans of that will certainly enjoy the Equivoque Principle. Thanks to Scott at the Friday Project for sending me the book – and roll on volume two.

A book quote for the weekend

I’m currently halfway through a massive chunkster of a non-fiction book. I am enjoying it though, but it’ll take me a few days to finish. So today, instead of a book review, I offer you an interesting quote I found on http://www.brainyquote.com/ from someone I’ve never heard of called Erma Bombeck, (an American journalist who died in 1996).
“Getting out of the hospital is a lot like resigning from a book club.
You’re not out of it until the computer says you’re out of it.”

The book group I belong to has an ever expanding list of members, past, present and occasional visitors. Once you’ve been, you have to change your email to get rid of us! But no-one appears to get cross with continuing to get our missives even when they’ve moved or got other things to do on book group night as, like all bibliomanes, they’re nosy and still like to know what we’re reading, I hope…