Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: June 2009 (page 1 of 3)

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

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.

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