‘Gets A Bit Preachy’

Score: 4/5

For Christmas SWMBO got me a subscription to Big Green Bookshop’s recommendations. It’s a neat idea - there are a lot of books out there and trustworthy recommendations can be hard to come by. (Don’t start me on the awful recommendation engines that seem to drive most of the internet these days.)

This was the first, and it’s a good one. From 2004, it’s surprisingly old - I think they go to the effort of tailoring their recommendations. It starts out well, bringing some simple cryptography into the plot, and it quickly escalates to bring more complex codes and ciphers into the plot.

Other strands involve working for a big company and growing up as a slightly odd young girl. I could certainly relate to some, but not all, of the problems. And of course the tension in the plot grew as I made my way through the book, but so did the preachiness. By the end it felt very preachy - that the author was less concerned about telling a story and more about pushing an agenda.

That’s a shame because there’s a lot to like about the book. Even the agenda might not be so bad if it wasn’t so in-your-face to the detriment of the story.

Oh, and there’s a mistake in one of the codes. I don’t know if it’s an accidental typo (it’s a simple transposition error) or if it’s deliberate to see if anyone is going to bother deciphering the codes in their heads (I did). I should probably check and see if there’s a reward or errata but if there was I’m sure it’s long-since claimed.

I did enjoy reading this book, though I’m not sure I’m ready for another book by that author yet.

I’m looking forward to the next book in my subscription.

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‘More Darkness In Exmoor’

Score: 4/5

I thoroughly enjoyed the author’s first book - Blacklands - when I read it last year. It was a No Alibis recommendation and I was in there again a while ago and made a point of seeking out her latest. (I also bought the recommended book Tall Oaks that day. I do like No Alibis and it even made the The Guardian today.)

This book is set in the same area - Exmoor - and there’s some overlap of characters from the first book. It’s still a standalone story, which I love - there’s no need to have read the first book to have read this, and it’s not really just one story spanning several ‘books’ to get more money from you (a personal bugbear).

I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first one though. Blacklands was a remarkable story in a terrific setting. The setting here is still great but the psychological thriller aspects just didn’t feel as real to me this time. I don’t want to spoil anything for you so I’ll shut up about that. It’s still a good book and well worth your time.

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‘Was Written For Me’

Score: 5/5

Talk about niche? This book is written for people who understand trading shares and forex, want to automate their trading, and are comfortable with Common Lisp and CLOS as the programming language.

There can’t be too many of them. Lisp has been enjoying some new popularity in recent years but it’s still not actually popular.

This may explain the price: £80 for the book on Amazon right now. It was pricey enough when I bought it, and that was a while ago - it’s a testament to my to-read pile that I bought this book in November 2013 and have only now read it.

It’s good at what it does too. It covers a lot of the basics around building an automated trading platform, with some useful ideas and recommendations that I can see would be hard-won. It doesn’t give you a trading platform written in Lisp, but it isn’t trying to - it’s using the code as a guide and a precise explanation rather than an actual tool for use. And that’s usually what I’d want anyway - text can be vague when code isn’t. (Code can be obtuse and obfuscated, but rarely is it vague.)

There’s less about trading strategies than I’d like. The book describes a few, and most importantly talks about back testing and forward testing strategies along with additional considerations like slippage and costs that aren’t necessarily taken into account during tests. That’s great. I’d still like to have seen more strategies though.

The nuts and bolts of automated trading 5 years ago is covered well. Some things are quite different now, but knowing the basics from this book should help.

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‘Gorgeous, Hard To Follow’

Score: 5/5

How do you follow a success like Fight Club?

I thoroughly enjoyed the original book, and (surprisingly) the movie - movies are never as good as the book, but Fight Club comes close! Nonetheless, the notion of a sequel scared me a bit.

And finding out it was only available as a graphic novel? Scarier still. Lots of folks love graphic novels but I’ve never really got into them.

Well, it’s beautifully put together. The book has a quality feel to it - the weight of the cover, the texture of the paper, the colours in the drawings, all added up to give it a great feeling in my hands.

But what about the story? That is, after all, the point.

Well, it’s OK. It’s great - in parts. It’s confusing - in parts. It’s way, way too meta - in parts. And it knows this. The artwork deliberately obscures some things (like text) to make it harder to see whats going on. I found that annoying but I suspect the artist loves it.

But by the end I thought it was fairly satisfying. It was interesting. It could have been less annoying and less confusing, but it was still good.

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‘Poor Man’s Culture Novel’

Score: 3/5

John Scalzi
£6.38

This is not a Culture novel.

It feels like it’s trying to be a Culture novel - it has a large space-faring civilisation (the Interdependency rather than the Culture), it has space ships with quaint names (‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby’ and ‘No, Sir, I Don’t Mean Maybe’ versus ‘Just Read The Instructions’, ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ and the excellently-named warship ‘What Are The Civilian Applications’), it has an expansive tale with politics, sex and intrigue... But it just feels like a poor attempt at a Culture novel.

Culture novels created a setting that really felt futuristic - medicine had been ‘perfected’ to the point where people (usually) didn’t die until they decided, artificial intelligence was far ahead of human intelligence, gender was fluid, warfare was ‘interesting’.

The Interdependency creates a setting that feels more like the 16th century. Journeys take months (and news travels at this same speed) and hereditary royalty are in charge.

But what really annoys me is that there seem to be fewer video cameras around millenia in the future than there are right now in 2018, people still use tablets as personal devices, and all the incidental data gathering that happens these days seems to have been deleted in the intervening centuries.

It all makes it feel like the person writing about the future hasn’t really thought about what the future will be like. Sure, tablets are great. But in a setting far in the future, that can generate 3D holograms of people with uploaded personalities created using brain-scanning implants, do you really think we’ll still be using tablets? We’ve had tablets for 10 years (20 if you include Windows tablets) but does anyone really believe they’ll have a 100 year lifespan, never mind 1000 years?

Or there’s this quote from page 229:

“[W]ho was deeply impressed with Ghreni, whose family could trace its noble origins back to before the founding of the Interdependency”

Really? If you’re born now, your name and parental details go into a computer. Tracing heredity is trivial these days and that doesn’t look like it’s going to get harder any time soon. In a thousand years time, the last one thousand years of everyone’s lineage will just be a database query away.

And if you’re thinking ‘Yes, but he’s talking about noble origins,’ let me point you at the article ‘You’re Descended from Royalty and So Is Everybody Else’ or if that’s too long, this shorter version.

Overall it feels like a limited, unimaginative view of the future. Which would be fine, of course, if we hadn’t already been spoiled by better.

But maybe the idea is just to make the setting as familiar as possible, changing a few things to set it in the future in order to shine a light on some aspects of the current world. Maybe. But Iain Banks didn’t try to do that - he created a rich, deep, engaging universe that you could really believe was a credible future. And I miss Iain Banks.

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‘I Miss Inheritance, Generics’

Score: 5/5

Alan A. A. Donovan and Brian W. Kernighan
£25.49

I’ve been trying to move away from .Net (I still resent them paying money to someone to make the ‘free’ tools spy on me) and Go seemed to be growing in popularity enough to sustain a good range of libraries so I figured it was time I should learn more about it. And I realised it’s been years since I last read a book dedicated to a programming language the whole way through.

So, ‘The Go Programming Language’, here we are.

There’s a lot to like about Go. There are also some bits of it that seem embarrassingly amateurish (I have to put my source code under a directory called ‘src’? Really? It can go anywhere I like, as long as the parent directory is called ‘src’? Seriously?) But the irksome GOPATH is not the point here. Nor is my missing inheritance and generics - they may be less necessary but I’d still find them useful.

The book is excellent. The code examples are concise but complete, the explanations clear. I remember decades ago reading another book with Brian Kernighan as a co-author - the famous ‘The C Programming Language’ - and I think I can see his influence here as well. I can probably make a good case for buying myself every book Brian Kernighan has ever written. At this rate I may need to keep an eye out for further books from Alan A. A. Donovan as well.

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‘Fun New Detective Series’

Score: 4/5

IQ
Joe Ide
£5.53

Yeah, it’s another take on the ridiculously-smart-detective trope. Sherlock Holmes has a lot to answer for! And of course the detective has an odd name (‘Isaiah Quintabe’ - the ‘IQ’ of the title) and a distinctive car.

This particular setting is a young black man in one of the poorer bits of Los Angeles who ends up gradually moving into a ‘private detective’ role for his community. Drugs, gangs and race feature prominently.

It’s engaging and interesting. Might order the follow-up.

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‘Manual For The Resistance’

Score: 3/5

Cory Doctorow
£7.99

This follow-up to Little Brother is a bit cheesier than I remember the first book being. The cameos of people the author knows feel particularly cringey.

But apart from that, what this book seems to be is a manual, or a set of instructions. If you wanted to ‘resist’ things in your country (whatever country you’re in), here’s how you could use current tech and encryption to help. How to use Tor for un-tappable browsing and communications, that kind of thing.

But where I got into Little Brother (and got angry!), Homeland just left me feeling ‘Meh’. It wasn’t as engaging for me as the first book, and it felt a little clumsier. Ah well.

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‘Rather You Than Me’

Score: 4/5

Would I take a one-way trip to Mars? Maybe. Would I want to be one of the first? Nah. I’ll wait until there’s something there first.

The subtitle of this book is ‘Why One-Way to Mars Makes Sense’, and I understand the reasoning. It’s just not for me. Much like I admire Shackleton and his men, I wouldn’t have replied to his advert either:

Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.

But still, people did volunteer for that exploration. And they’d probably volunteer for this too. As the author points out, the risks of spaceflight are (currently) on a par with smoking, and there are a lot of smokers out there...

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‘Darkly Comic, Comically Dark’

Score: 5/5

Chris Whitaker
£7.99

Belfast has a great crime bookstore - No Alibis. When I was in some time last year, I picked up ‘Blacklands’ by Belinda Bauer and the owner David heaped a lot of praise on it. And he was right!

So when I was in again recently I asked him what I should buy this time. Not one in the same vein as Blacklands, just one that he thought was good. He picked this one. He was right again.

It’s a funny book of small-town characters. But it’s not. The comedy is on the surface but there’s a lot more going on as well. A lovely collection of people and red herrings as well as the central mystery. Thoroughly enjoyable!

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