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text 2017-11-13 23:22
The Flat Book Society: Suggest books for March read

As I mentioned in a previous post, the structure for choosing the Flat Book Society's reads has changed.  (See below for a recap.)

 

The voting list has been cleared and is open to submissions for March's Flat Book Society read.  The list will remain open a week or so, or until we have 10-15 books on it, and then the voting will be announced.

 

Note:  There were three books on the list tied for highest number of votes.  One of them is the January read, and I've left the other two titles in place on the list, with their votes intact.  Any member who has voted on one of those books can remove their vote if they change their minds; members can also vote on multiple books.

 

 

New club structure:

1. Books are chosen via voting on the club page's "next read" tab. For each reading round, members can submit 1-2 suggestions each, directly to the voting list (max. 15 books total for each round). The submission window will last about 2 weeks, or until we hit 15 books.

Please only add books that clearly fall under the general topic of science; by science, think the hard sciences (not psychology or statistics or self-help, for example). All books that do not clearly fall under the science flag will be unceremoniously removed.

1a. Please vote for as all the books you're interested in. This will ensure that books are chosen that are both accessible and interesting to the largest number of members. 

2. Voting takes place over 1 week period. The book with the highest number of votes will be the next scheduled group read.

3. After the book has been scheduled, the list will be cleared, and all the titles will be moved to the overflow list, which can be found here: The Flat Book Society: Nominated Books.  Generously maintained by Portable Magic.  Books on this list can be moved back to the voting list during any submission period.

4. New group reads will happen every other month and last approximately 2-4 weeks. (Jan / Mar / May / July / Sept / Nov).

5. Books will be chosen for group reads a minimum of 8 weeks in advance, to make sure that anyone interested in participating in the read (me) will have ample time to source the book.

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review 2017-11-13 08:56
Forensics: The Anatomy of a Crime
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

I have so many thoughts about this book and they're scattered all over the joint.  

 

It occurred to me as I finally finished reading it that we sometimes come at books in much the same way faulty investigators come at a crime scene: we take in the initial information (in our case, the title, cover and jacket flap) and make assumptions as to how the book is going to play out.  If, as we start to read the book, it fails to fulfil our assumptions, we tend to then judge it on its failure to be what thought it would be, instead of judging it on what it is.  

 

The differences between investigating crimes and reading books are ... obvious and profound, but in the case of books, the blame lies squarely on poor marketing.  This book, for instance, has had two titles.  It's original on release was Forensics: Anatomy of a Crime (the edition I have) and then upon reprinting, it was named Forensics: What Bugs, Burns, Prints, DNA and More Tell Us About Crime.  It's former title is problematic, but not misleading.  Those that choose the book based on the latter I think are bound for disappointment, unless they know absolutely nothing about forensics, have only a general interest in it, and very little curiosity about the actual science involved.

 

I wanted the science.  I expected the science.  I wasn't expecting the very journalistic style of the narrative.  That part is on me, because I've never before read McDermid and didn't know about her background in journalism.  I really dislike the style of writing journalists do; in too many cases the narrative ends up with a sensationalist tone that feels manipulative and turns me off.  This book started off that way and had it not been for reassurances by friends that it would get better, I doubt I'd have continued reading it.  

 

Thankfully, I found the remaining chapters more palatable, and once I re-adjusted my expectations (i.e. this is not a science book) I was able to more or less find something interesting in each.  I also was left wanting though, too; she mentions the science, but never how it's done.  She doesn't explain why polymerase enzyme would make DNA 'replicate the hell out of itself', or how forensics scientists lift fingerprints from seemingly impossible places.  And I really had a problem with some statistics she included in the chapter on blood spatter/DNA, concerning the number of African-descent males in the UK vs US databases.  I'm not objecting to the veracity of it, but the writing in that section was so badly done that at first glance, it appears she's using her words to skew the reader's perception.  It took my husband and I 5 minutes of reading it and re-reading it before we decided it was probably just very terrible editing.

 

But there were lots of interesting bits too; with the right expectations, this would not be a wasted or disappointing read.  For those with an interest in true crime and history, this book might be a winner.  It's easy reading, the crimes she chooses are interesting (when they aren't horrific) and the book rarely drags.

 

At the end of the day, Forensics and the author would have been better served had they stuck with Anatomy of a Crime as a subtitle and marketed it as General Interest / True Crime*.  As such, I think it would have a found a very appreciative audience.  As it is, marketing it as a Popular Science book is setting everyone up for disappointment.

 

*Oddly enough, the publisher did list the subject as "True Crime", but then proceeded to use the back cover / page flap to sell the book as using "ground-breaking research" to "lay bare the secrets of this fascinating science".   

 

And finally, my husband asked that I include his complete annoyance with the flies printed on all the pages of the book; he didn't read it, but every time he saw me with it, he'd catch a glimpse of the flies and think I'd squashed one between the pages. If they insisted on persevering with that theme, at least vary the squashed insects...

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review 2017-11-10 21:37
Society, freedom, the Black Death, and secrets
The Last Hours - Minette Walters

Thanks to Atlantic Books, Allen & Unwin and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

Although Minette Walters is a familiar name, I have not read any of her crime fiction, so I can’t really compare this historical novel to her previous work, but after reading this I’ll check them out for sure.

I was intrigued by this novel, partly because of the author, but also because I had recently read a novel set during the period of the Black Death and was curious to read more on the subject.

The author sets the novel in Develish, an estate in Dorsetshire (there is not such a village in present-day Dorset, although there is one called Dewlish that I wonder if it might have been the inspiration for the one in the book), on the brink of the arrival of the plague to England. Sir Richard is away from the estate, trying to arrange the marriage of his daughter, Lady Eleanor, and although he tries to return home when he realises people are dying, it is too late for him. His wife, Lady Anne, who was educated in a convent and knows about healing, herbs, and letters, takes control (she already was managing the estate, although always unofficially, as her husband did not know how to read or write and thought that flogging or whipping his serfs was all that was required) and isolates the estate, moving all the farmers and serfs inside the walls of Sir William’s manor house —set apart from the village houses and the fields by a moat— and ensuring that her sanitation and hygiene rules are followed. Nobody really knows how the disease spread but her measures seem to work, although not everything is well in Develish.

The story is fascinating because of the complexity of the characters, the power struggles (there are clear differences between the Norman lords and the Saxon population, with the Normans being shown as abusive stuck-up individuals whilst the Saxons do all the work, and there is much discussion about taxation, indentured conditions, education…), the social order of the era, and the added difficulties of trying to confine two hundred people in a small space, ensuring the peace is maintained, and keeping their spirits up.

Lady Anne keeps records, with the intention of leaving a written account of what happened in case they all perish, so others might learn from their experiences, but she also keeps a more personal account, and at times it is clear that what she writes is an edited version of the truth, although always for good reasons. Her sensibilities seem very modern. She does not treat people according to their birth but to their actions, her religious ideas are out of keeping with the period (she has no respect for priests and dismisses any attempts of blaming the illness on people’s lack of faith or sinful behaviour) and she does show a great deal of understanding and hindsight of how the spread of the plague will revolutionise the social situation, bringing new opportunities to the skilled workers who survive (as there won’t be enough people to do all the jobs and that scarcity will allow them to negotiate better conditions). She is one of the most interesting and important characters of the novel, together with Thaddeus Thurkell, a young man (only eight years younger than her, as she was married at fourteen) of unknown parentage whom she has taught and protected from childhood and who seems as out of place as she is. At some point in the novel, due to the murder of his half-brother, he leaves the demesne with five young boys and we follow their adventures too, learning about the fate of other estates and villages, and getting more insight into the character of Thaddeus and his young assistants.

Sir William dies early in the story, although he is much talked about through the rest of the novel. He is an evil character with no redeeming features, although we don’t realise quite how bad he really was until close to the end of the novel (but we probably suspected it). Personally, I prefer my baddies greyer rather than all black. Lady Eleanor is another one of the characters that I found problematic. She is her father’s daughter, spoilt and cruel, dismissive of serfs and with a sense of entitlement not based on any personal qualities. Again, there are no redeeming features apparent in the girl, although her behaviour made me consider some psychiatric diagnoses (borderline personality disorder seems likely) and towards the end, I felt sorry for both, her and Lady Anne, as they are boxed into a corner with no easy or satisfactory way out. There are many other secondary characters, although very few of them are given enough individual space for us to get to know them (apart from the priest, Isabella, and Giles) but the author manages to create a realistic sense of a community growing and evolving thanks to an enlightened leader, united by their faith in Lady Anne, and facing together the challenges of their difficult situation.

The story is told in the third person but each chapter or fragment of the story is told from one of the characters’ point of view. This is not confusing and serves the story well, helping give the readers a sense of control (and also increasing the tension, as at times we believe we know the truth because we know more than some of the characters, but we do not realise we are missing important pieces of information). The book recreates the historical period without being too heavy on descriptions. We learn more about how society worked than about every little detail of clothing and food (but there should be enough information for fans of historical fiction to enjoy it, although I am not an expert in the era and not all reviewers agree).There are some funny moments (like when they see a cat for the first time and believe it is a monster), some battles, fights, scary moments, secrets galore, and plenty of intrigues, but it is not a fast page-turner and there is a fair amount of time dedicated to the politics and social mores of the era (that, for me, was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story). I felt the novel progressed at a good pace, but I would not recommend it to readers looking for a story full of action and adventures.

I enjoyed the novel, in particular the historical background, the psychological portrayal of the characters (the bad characters are just bad, while the good characters are fairly complex and not all good, and there is plenty of room for further development) although I did have doubts as to how in keeping with the historical period some of the attitudes and the ideas expressed were, but my main issue was the ending. As many people have commented on their reviews, it is never mentioned that this is book one and not a full-story and then the book ends up with a to be continued. After so many pages, the ending of the novel felt rushed, and although the story stops at an inflection point, there are many questions to be answered and I suspect most readers will feel disappointed.

 An interesting incursion into the historical fiction genre by the author, and one that will make readers wonder about what freedom really means, the nature of power, and how much (or how little) life has changed since.

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text 2017-11-08 03:42
The Flat Book Society: January read and new club structure announcement.
Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life - Helen Czerski

Our January read has been selected.  The read will begin on January 1st and I'll try to send reminders out at the usual intervals.  

 

Just as Freakonomics brought economics to life, so Storm in a Teacup brings physics into our daily lives and makes it fascinating.

Our world is full of patterns. If you pour milk into your tea and give it a stir, you’ll see a swirl, a spiral of two fluids, before the two liquids mix completely. The same pattern is found elsewhere too. Look down on the Earth from space, and you’ll find similar swirls in the clouds, made where warm air and cold air waltz.

In Storm in a Teacup, Helen Czerski links the little things we see every day with the big world we live in. Each chapter begins with something small – popcorn, coffee stains and refrigerator magnets – and uses it to explain some of the most important science and technology of our time.

 

 

If this sounds like something you're interested in, please join us!

 

 

 

New club structure changes

It has become obvious to several of us that we are a bit too spoiled for choice on our voting list of books, and it's causing information over-load for many of our members.  In light of this, we're going to try a new structure.  Simply put, the process for each read (occurring every other month) will be:

 

After the current read is over, the voting list will be cleared;  books left on the list after voting ends will be moved to a new list in the BookLikes reading list section (details TBA). Portable Magic has graciously volunteered to create and maintain this list and is in the process of doing so.  Once that list is created, we'll let everyone know where to find it.


Members will then have a 2 week window to submit 1-2 suggestions each to the voting list (max. 15 books), for the next read. 

Just about everyone agrees that more than 15 books to consider is too many books, so our aim is a list of 10-15 books each time.


Voting takes place over 1-2 week period.

I find most votes are in within 1 week, but I'll play this by ear and adjust as necessary.


Book with the most votes is the next scheduled read.

Process repeats.

 

 

Rogue Flat Book Reads

Tannat, our resident insurgent, has been given sanction to run Rogue Flat Book reads.   She'll be announcing these Rogue Reads at her whim, and creating dedicated discussion threads for them; anyone and everyone is encouraged to participate.  I'd like to think this will allow for those readers who are looking for even more science in their life, but I suspect it's Tannat's first step towards world-domination.  ;-)

 

Any questions, or if you'd like to join in the discussion about club changes, please do so here.

 

 

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review 2017-11-07 18:25
Investigative Journalism and True Crime Writing Masquerading as Science
Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime - Val McDermid

I had long rants going through my head on pretty much every page of this book while I was reading, but bottom line, it just doesn't deserve the attention of my detailing them.  I like McDermid's crime fiction (most of it, anyway) and I'd very much wish she'd stick to that in the future.  There is enough writing "for the effect", garnished with sweeping (moreover: repeatedly dead wrong) generalizations about the justice system and legal history in here to last me the next several years at the very least -- and the fact that this is the way she is writing about the one area that I know personally and in-depth only enhances my doubts about her writing concerning the areas with which I am less deeply familiar, and about which I would very much have liked to learn more.

 

As I said in my one and only status update, this isn't science writing -- not even popular science writing.  McDermid lists a number of science books in the bibliography at the end of this book, but there is no indication -- neither in foot- or endnotes nor in any other way -- how, if at all, the contents of those or other books, or other forms of research, personal knowledge and experience actually impacted her writing, are reflected therein, or would provide further information on specific topics that she addresses (by which I don't mean general areas and disciplines such as entomology or toxicology as such but individual aspects of these disciplines that she touches on). 

 

The only thing we may reasonably be assured of is that she talked to a number of scientists and (hopefully) renders the salient contents of their answers with a modicum of faithfulness.  Nevertheless, it is their statements she quotes, not her own independent research and knowledge, and obvioiusly, their answers only cover the topics she asked about, leaving plenty of questions both unasked and unanswered.  Hence, the actual scientific contents of this book is never more than skin-deep.  The vast majority of the book's chapters are a mixture of true crime writing à la Ann Rule and David Wambaugh on the one hand (including lavish, detailed, tabloid-style descriptions of the victims and their suffering), a journalist's description of the physical attributes of her interview partners on the other hand, and a historical and general introduction to the various areas of forensic science that, in any university program, wouldn't merit more than a few minutes' discussion and a recommendation for further reading at home.  Mind you, I'm interested in history, so I did enjoy the individual chapters' paragraph-(or-two-)long introductions dealing with the origins of the respective disciplines, but I most certainly could have done without the plethora of lengthy true crime narration and I also didn't need to know what McDermid's interviewees looked like.  With very few exceptions, I've learned more about forensic science in law school and by reading forensic accident reports in civil cases and pathologists' statements in criminal cases -- and, more specifically, about forensic anthrophology also by reading Kathy Reich's Tempe Brennan mysteries -- than from this book by Val McDermid.

 

On more than one occasion, there is not even any indication how McDermid selected her interview partners in the first place (what exactly do the attributes mean that she uses to characterize several of her interviewees in lieu of detailing their professional background, such as "eminent": who awarded these people those attributes, and on what basis precisely?).  Indeed, in several instances, there is every reason to believe that these just happen to be people she has come across in her day job as a crime fiction writer.  The Professor Bernard Knight she references, for example, is very likely the mystery writer and, according to his own standard short biographical blurb, former Home Office pathologist and professor of forensic medicine who since the early 2000s publishes the Crowner John mystery series and is one of the authors of the "Medieval Murderers" round robins (the first of which appeared in 2005); and the scientists she references from the University of Dundee were involved, last year, in an open university forensics project that used McDermid as a figurehead.  That doesn't mean, of course, that these people don't know what they're doing as scientists (in fact, the frequently plodding nature of Knight's fiction writing makes me suspect that he is probably a better scientist than fiction writer, and from what I saw of the Dundee open university project before I had to drop it due to other commitments, it looked both fun and informative) -- but if McDermid's book had the least bit of claim to being a genuine contribution to (if only: popular) science writing, she would openly state her connection with these sources.  (As an aside, it is not good journalism, either, not to have done so.)

 

Final note on the visuals of the specific edition that I read: I was initially pleased because the cover of this edition seemed to promise a relatively matter-of-fact approach without any recourse to showy effects.  Unfortunately, that proved to be the case with regard to this particular print edition as little as it is with regard to the book's substantive contents, as the fly making an appearance as the cover's sole illustration also makes an appeareance on the book's every single page, for purely "ornamental" purposes and without the slightest reference to the actual contents of those pages:

 

(Scans from the final 2 pages of the chapter on facial reconstruction.)

 

Can you possibly get any tackier -- in a book aspiring to a scientific contents, no less?

 

I read this as the November group read of the Flat Book Society and was planning to use it as my "16 Festive Tasks" book for the "Newtonmas" square: I'm going to leave it on that square provisorially on the basis of the occasional scientific bits contributed by McDermid's interviewees, but will very likely be replacing it by the December rogue Flat Book Society buddy read, The Science of Discworld.

 

 

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