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What I've just finished reading

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert

I nearly dropped this one when there was a mention of evolutionary psychology but I persevered. The author's ideas about beliefs, how they're formed, why science often seems so contrary to 'common sense', about causal beliefs being related to toolmaking, were all quite fascinating. After that, it all became quite messy as the author discussed beliefs in specific areas and I felt like I was getting a good look at the author's belief-set.

Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69 by Stephen E. Ambrose

Mediocre coverage of a fascinating subject. The transcontinental railroad was an incredible feat and the fact that it was all done by hand labour is breathtaking. I'd love to read a book that really looked at the men who built it rather than constantly talking about how much everything cost.

NB: According to reviews, the book contains a considerable number of errors so I really want to read a different book now.

Raffles and the Golden Opportunity by Victoria Glendinning

Raffles was a man born slightly too soon. He should have been born in Queen Victoria's age of empire-building. As it was, he had the ideas and the drive but minimal if any support and how the man did not have multiple nervous breakdowns, I have no idea. At the worst point, he and his second wife lost three of their four children in six months (a fifth would die in infancy.) The ship they boarded to take them back to England, where they would be reunited with their one remaining child, caught fire and sank. All of their possessions, including a collection of art and natural history specimens and all of Raffles' manuscripts, were destroyed.

The Ice Balloon: One Man's Dramatic Attempt to Discover the North Pole by Balloon by Alec Wilkinson

A fascinating story that was less preposterous - and more tragic - than it sounded. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough for a whole book so the author included more information about the Artic and other expeditions. This can be done well but here it was very choppy. Still, I enjoyed it.

I reread Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded by Simon Winchester. My recollection was that I hadn't enjoyed the science parts very much and that was still the case. I was surprised, since I liked The Crack in the Edge of the World so much. I read some reviews that said Winchester had recycled Krakatoa's plate tectonics material for Edge but I don't think so. Both books do discuss plate tectonics and New Geology but in Krakatoa it's from the angle of volcanoes and in Edge, it's earthquakes. Rather different! I just didn't find the science parts as interesting for some reason. I also found Winchester's attitude towards modern Jakarta, Islam, Indonesian history, etc, somewhat patronising.

What I'm reading now

The Balloonists: The History of the First Aeronauts by L.T.C Rolt

What I'm reading next

No idea!
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What I've just finished reading

The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal by Lynne Kelly

I enjoyed this. Good, steady look at various 'supernatural' and 'paranormal' phenomena and how they can/have been explained. Particularly liked the ones on UFOs, Roswell, cold-reading, numerology and walking on hot coals.

Poltergeists And The Paranormal by Reuben Stone

Reading this right after The Skeptic's Guide nearly gave me whiplash. Too sensationalist in tone for me take it seriously for the most part but the chapters on weird rains and timeslips were intriguing.

Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science by Jeff Meldrum

Oddly, Sasquatch et al. was the subject of one of the few short chapters in The Skeptic's Guide and was dismissed as being the result a few hoaxes and some misidentified footprints. That's all I ever thought of it as. After reading this book, I won't be surprised if a surviving or recently extinct great ape of some kind is discovered, whether in North America or somewhere else. The author is a scientist and while I did get rather tired of reading about all the implications of various kinds of footprints, that is his specialty. I would have been interested in a deeper look at the media reactions to reports of 'Bigfoot' and 'Sasquatch' and how they have influenced the scientific establishment's response to the idea.

Cowgirls, Cockroaches and Celebrity Lingerie: The World's Most Unusual Museums by Michelle Lovric

Very lightweight look at some of the unusual museums around the world. Fun but not memorable.

A Crack in the Edge of the World: The Great American Earthquake of 1906 by Simon Winchester

This book is done a disservice by its title and blurb. If you're looking for a social history of the San Francisco earthquake and the aftermath (which I would love to read!), you might think you've found it with this - but you haven't. A Crack in the Edge of the World is a history of New Geology, plate tectonics, the San Andreas fault, the settlement of California - all through the focus of the 1906 earthquake. It's absolutely fascinating and there is a good deal of social history as well (the gold rush, Angel Island and the Chinese settlers of San Francisco, the spin doctoring to keep San Francisco from being seen as earthquake-prone) but the book isn't focused on that. I still loved it. Although be warned, Winchester never met a thesaurus he didn't like. AT least he uses the words correctly ...

What I'm reading now

Nothing Like it in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-69 by Stephen E. Ambrose

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert

What I'm reading next

What's in the next meme!
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What I've just finished reading

The Australian Book Of True Crime by Larry Writer

Really enjoyed this. Solid writing, a good range of cases including quite a few I'd never heard of (and why had I never heard of the Lesbian Vampire Killers?) although I was surprised Ivan Milat of the Backpacker Murders wasn't included.

The Museum of Hoaxes by Alex Boese

According to my Goodreads shelves I had read this before but I couldn't remember it. Entertaining light read covering hoaxes throughout history and looking at the differences in hoaxes from different periods.

One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson

I usually enjoy Bryson's writing and I enjoyed this. America was in a time of amazing change and the way he shows it is well done. The personalities who come through the page all seem so real - Hoover was a very odd man; I kind of wanted to pat Coolidge on the head; I never knew anything about Babe Ruth besides 'baseball player' before this but pro sports is still throwing young guys in the deep end, isn't it?; whatever Charles Lindbergh later became, I felt so sorry for him by the end of the summer! Once a person becomes a 'celebrity', their treatment as a human being seems to go out the window.

Radio, movies, Hollywood, the seed of the Great Depression, the beginning of commercial aviation, Mount Rushmore, Prohibition, Al Capone ... it was quite a summer.

I did find the narrative a bit jumpy and hard to follow at times but my copy was an uncorrected proof and I'm not sure if it was the final text. It did have some obvious spelling and setting errors.

Ghosts of New York by Susan Blackhall

Light, chatty accounts of well-known New York ghosts. A couple were genuinely creepy, a few were intriguing enough to make me want to know more. Mostly for ghost or New York buffs.

13: The Story of the World's Most Popular Superstition by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer

Again, I 'shelved' this as read but I only remember the first chapter. Interesting look at how recent the unlucky 13 superstition really is and Friday the 13th, even more so. In this day and age, it's a little unnerving how widely a superstition can spread via mass media, even replacing local superstitions.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

I really enjoyed Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers but I was mostly 'meh' about this one. Too much of the author trying to be funny, not enough trying to sort out what was going on.

Will Storr Versus The Supernatural by Will Storr

Much better. Again, 'shelved' as read but I only remembered the first chapter. I was fascinated by Storr's journey from total skeptic to possible believer (but still skeptical.) He never seemed to be writing for effect. He was respectful of all those he met along the way, even when they seemed like utter lunatics to me. But I was left queasy by the final story - what happened to Denzel? Whatever was going on, it didn't sound like he'd be safe around his mother or priest.

Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker

I wish she'd picked a timeline and stuck to it. Just when I'd be getting into someone's story, she'd abruptly end the chapter and switch to a totally different person or experience. By the time that person's story came around again, it would feel out of the blue. Lily Dale sounds like a fascinating place with a fascinating history but I found this book - which is really more of a memoir - quite muddled. Then again, maybe that suits Lily Dale.

Reread Affluenza by Oliver James. I remembered I'd read this as well as the Clive Hamilton book and got it out to skim again. Ah. That would be why I'd rated it two stars. Decent ideas but wrapped up in a whole lot of arrogant, self-satisfied, pompous ... go for the Clive Hamilton book. Far less annoying and a lot shorter.

What I'm reading now

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

I started this last week but haven't opened it again this week, just buried myself in the non-fiction.

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast by Lewis Wolpert

Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science by Jeff Meldrum

What I'm reading next

No idea!
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What I've just finished reading

Fool's War by Sarah Zettel

I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. Cool female characters including a Muslim ship owner/engineer whose marriage is primarily long-distance. The plot, involving sentient AIs, does get very interesting - but it took so long to get there! I don't know if this is a hard SF thing but the endless descriptions and nit-picking details about How Everything Works - the space station, the ship, the next station, the information streams, the settlement - took so long and bogged the story down. I wound up flicking ahead to see if got interesting. I spoiled myself thoroughly but yep, it got interesting. I just had to wade through all the excess detail to find the story.

Reread of ridiculously charming The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer as palate cleanser after Burke and Hare. One of my Top 10 Heyers.

Burke & Hare by Owen Dudley Edwards

This took me days to slog through and I could rant about it for awhile but suffice to say the author is exceedingly verbose and thinks very highly of his own opinions. Biased is putting it mildly (but he accuses other historians of it and dismisses their conclusions on this basis!) I still feel like I know very little about Burke and Hare as they seemed to get lost in the author's side issues.

Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough by Clive Hamilton

Not the book by Oliver James but a book from 2005 with an Australian focus. Nothing really new to me but it confirmed how much we've shifted from the 'Aussie battler' to the 'Aussie whinger' - helped along by politicians playing up the former ideal. It would be interesting to see an update post-GFC. Try reminding Australians we are a wealthy country that weathered the GFC in remarkably good shape thanks to Labor. Hah.

Cold Cases: On The Trail Of Justice by Charlotte Greig

Lightweight coverage of cold cases solved by a variety of techniques, with cases reopened for different reasons. Sloppy editing.

What I'm reading now

The Replacement by Brenna Yovanoff

Gangsters Encyclopedia by Michael Newton

What I'm reading next

Fiction by a known author and a lighter non-fiction, I expect.
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I noticed that Wednesday reading meme that started going around last year and vaguely thought about doing it ... but of course I never got around to it. But last week I had two books that to go back to the library in a couple of days and I'd only read part of one of them and I thought, 'Self, you really have to do better at putting a dent a dent in your TBR piles. And shelves.' So here's my first week's efforts. Maybe this weekly check-in will remind me to keep it up! (Don't expect coherent comments every week though.)

What I've just finished

Shades of Milk and Honey (Glamourist Histories, #1)
Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories, #2)

Mary Robinette Kowal

These were the library books. Alternate Regency Europe where they have magic called glamour. I liked the storylines well enough and the descriptions of glamour but I never really felt like I connected with the characters. If the library gets the third book I'll probably read it. Nice light reads.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I read Good Omens and promptly fell in love with all things Pratchett. Gaiman, not so much. But I did enjoy Neverwhere and London Below. For a rather damp white male POV protagonist (sigh) Richard's okay. It's interesting that while it was Richard's story, it's never his quest. I was delighted that he never wound up with a Hidden Destiny or Secret Parentage. He did get something in the end but only once the quest was done. That being said, a book from Door, the Marquis, or Hunter's POV would be a lot more interesting.

The Devil in the Dust (Outremer, Volume 1) by Chaz Brenchley

Alternate Crusades, high fantasy. Quite dark in places and oddly short - which was explained when I looked it up and found that US Book 1 (which I have) is only the first half of the UK Book 1. Apparently the US publishers thought the UK books were too big and scary and spilt them into six, rather than three. I wasn't hugely enamoured of the book but now I feel like I haven't finished it and it's going to bug me.

I also reread several Agatha Christie Poirot novels - After The Funeral, Three-Act Tragedy and Appointment with Death.

Mrs Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale

Didn't enjoy this nearly as much as The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. It was an interesting look into Victorian society at the point when divorce became a serious possibility but frankly I didn't like any of the people involved very much. I did have some sympathy for Isabella - her husband was a shit and the way he stole her private diary then let others read it, and used it to the point where her most intimate thoughts and fantasies where being printed by the daily press was horrifying - but I never was a fan of Madame Bovary.

Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson

The huge changes resulting from the Great War and the 'Surplus Women' who could never marry and had to make their own way, thus revolutionising the idea of the single woman would make a fascinating book - but not this book. There was some good information and some terrific characters but oh gods, the writing! The repetition! The restatements and then the wandering from the point!

Out of Harm's Way: The Wartime Evacuation of Children from Britain
by Jessica Mann

Much better and both sad and interesting. If the UK had been invaded, the parents would have been applauded for sending their children overseas. But it didn't happen and it was years before the families could be reunited, with parents who'd suffered through the war and children who'd grown up in very different countries.

French Letters and English Overcoats: Sexual Fallacies and Fads from Ancient Greece to the Millenium by Richard De'Ath

Silly and fun collection of historical anecdotes. One presumes that at least one person had to try certain remedies and deem them effective to recommend them ... how did the human race manage to reproduce? It is also hilarious to note how many Victorian-era anti-masturbation and chastity devices look very similar to what can be found on modern BDSM sites ...

Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness by Julie Wheelwright

Started out as a thesis apparently. I didn't find it too dry but others might. It was very interesting to see how the idea of the cross-dressing female as heroine changed with (not quite) modern ideas of sexuality. Suddenly it couldn't just be because she wanted the freedom the explore, to earn better money, to be free from harassment - there must be some hidden sexual component as well.

What I'm reading now

Wolfsbane (Sianim, #4 / Aralorn, #2) by Patricia Briggs

The Warrior Queens: Boadicea's Chariotby Antonia Fraser

What I'm reading next

Something from the shelves? Or the pile of books on the chair next me right now?


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December 2016

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