Books I read in 2011
Myths To Live By by Joseph Campbell
19th December 2011
Tricks Of The Mind by Derren Brown
10th December 2011
I.M. Wright's "Hard Code" by Eric Brechner
30th November 2011
Wolf Hall by Hiliary Mantel
30th November 2011
The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing
1st November 2011
Doris Lessing's dystopian fantasy takes place in a future Britain where some unmentioned event has sown the seeds for the gradual disintegration of society, out of which new more primitive orders seem to be arising observed by the unnamed narrator along with a young girl called Emily who has been left in her care. From their window they watch gangs of youths periodically gather and then move off; other gangs take over disused houses, trying to build something new, while untameable feral children wander at will. She fears for Emily, who moves between the "old order" represented by the narrator and her flat, and the new world that is taking shape outside, while at the same time experiencing visions of another ethereal world within the walls of the building, and which ultimately seems to provide an escape of some sort.
Lessing’s vision of the future breakdown is bleak, but also somehow drab and dreary - what I always think of as "1970s end-of-the-world". However while it reminded me of many ways of JG Ballard’s various dystopias, and the breakdown of society depicted in Nigel Kneale’s "Quatermass" (which superficially has a similar theme of society dividing into young and old), the overwhelming sense is not so much apocalyptic as more of a sense of protracted winding-down. I found it a strangely depressing novel, and its description of social decay perhaps have parallels with our own times: ultimately it leaves the most disturbing idea of all, that the end of the world might already have begun and we just haven't realised it yet.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
12th October 2011
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
27th September 2011
Tom Wolfe’s book about the US navy test pilots and the part they played in the Mercury space missions - which launched the first Americans into space as part of the cold war "space race" against the Soviet Union - is arguably a modern classic.
Focusing less on the technical details (though there are plenty of those) and more on the personalities and motivations of the first US astronauts (the so-called "Mercury Seven"), it sets these against broader political and social contexts (in which "winning" the race against the Russians - who had already successfully launched satellites like Sputnik - became a matter not just of national pride but of national survival) and the astronauts’ own peers - the hidden world of the test pilots who prided themselves on having the eponymous "right stuff": a mixture of talent, skill, cool-headedness and luck which separated the best pilots from the also-rans. Wolfe contrasts the seat-of-their-pants heroics of men like Chuck Yeager who piloted jets to the edge of space, with the struggles of the Mercury astronauts to be recognised as pilots at all within a space program run by scientists and engineers: while the press, politicians and the public laud them as heroes, their test pilot peers see them as little more than "spam in a can".
The book is written with a wry sense of humour, and the way that he frames certain aspects of the story often made me laugh out loud. Wolfe’s telling of the story often seems to show the astronauts in a rather unflattering light (it surprised me to learn that they’d co-operated extensively in helping him write the book), though their motivations seem plausible and human and ultimately Wolfe makes them sympathetic in spite of their failings. In fact, reading this time the test pilots reminded me in many ways of a particular type of computer geek (another subculture in which a self-proclaimed elite see their skills as setting them apart from "civilians" who "don’t get it", as well as providing a way to measure themselves against their peers to see who has the most "right stuff").
I know people who didn’t enjoy this at all, finding the detail at times overwhelming. But to me on this third reading it was still as hugely entertaining, insightful and interesting as before.
C by Tom McCarthy
21st September 2011
"C" is an account of the short and intense life of the fictional Serge Carrefax, born at the beginning of the twentieth century at the same time as wireless communication crackled into existence. His early years are spent on his parents' estate - his father runs a school for the deaf, his mother manages a silk weaving enterprise, his eccentric older sister conducts chemistry experiments, while Serge himself listens to wireless transmissions and tries to make sense of the cryptic signs and signals he encounters.
From there he becomes an observer in early first World War aircraft (before being captured by the Germans and waiting out in the war in POW camps); as an architecture student (and drug-addict) he experiences London of the Roaring Twenties; and finally (as a British civil servant) he finds himself in the tombs of Egypt.
I did very much enjoy reading "C", although it's not clear to me whether Serge's story really amounts to anything. As told the distinct episodes of his life seem to stand alone, and like Serge while we as readers might try to understand the events that befall him in the end it feels like very little is really explained. But maybe that's the point - it's perhaps less a narrative, and more an exploration of the worlds that Serge finds himself in (and his reactions to them). "C" is still immensely engaging and memorable (for me, particularly the section about his time in the war), and I'd definitely recommend it.
The Dice Man by Luke Rhineheart
30th August 2011
How You Stand, How You Move, How You Live by Missy Vineyard
6th August 2011
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster
1st August 2011
E.M. Foster’s classic novel about the colonial English in India revolves around an incident involving an Indian doctor and an English woman visiting her fiance (a lawyer in the colonial establishment) that takes place during a picnic the doctor has arranged for the woman and her prospective mother-in-law at the remote Marabar Caves; before and after that we see into how the colonials and the natives regard themselves and each other, and how these contribute to the circumstances and subsequent events that follow it.
For me the novel seemed to be as much about what happens at the uneasy interface of two cultures that have been forced together, particularly when one sees itself as inherently superior to the other, and has the power to enforce that view. Foster has various characters positioned in different places relative to this interface, from the extremes (the colonialists who see the natives and their culture as irredeemably inferior; the Indians who object - arguably quite rightly - that the English are oppressors) to those who try to reach across the divide and form friendships that ultimately seemed doomed to flounder on the rocks of inequality and cultural misunderstandings.
This was the first time I've read any Foster, and I was surprised at how modern the writing in "A Passage to India" felt - both in terms of the language, and with how the English and the Indian characters are largely portrayed sympathetically, with their good intentions overshadowed by their cultures. It was also interesting to see Indian society itself not as a homogenous whole, but comprising of many different cultures, and that often the Indians could be as baffling to each other as them and the English. Highly recommended.
Python Testing Cookbook by Greg L. Turnquist
25th July 2011
Disclosure: a free e-copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes. The opinions expressed here are entirely my own; a copy of this review has also been posted at Amazon.
Greg L. Turnquist’s “Python Testing Cookbook” explores automated testing at all levels, with the intention of providing the reader with the knowledge needed to implement testing using Python tools to improve software quality. To this end the book presents over 70 “recipes” in its nine chapters (ranging from the basics of unit testing, through test suites, user acceptance and web application testing, continuous integration, and methods for smoke- and load-testing), covering both tools for testing Python, and Python tools for testing. It also delivers advice about how to get the most from automated testing, which is as much an art as a science.
The first three chapters introduce the fundamentals: writing, organising and running unit tests, comprehensively covering unittest (Python’s built-in unit testing library), nose (a versatile tool for discovering, running and reporting tests) and doctest (which turns Python docstrings into testable code – a sample of this chapter can be downloaded from http://www.packtpub.com/python-testing-cookbook/book). Having established a solid foundation, subsequent chapters look at increasingly broader levels of automated testing using the appropriate relevant Python tools: for example, the “lettuce” and “should_DSL” libraries for “behaviour driven development” (an extension of “test driven development” which aims to produce human-readable test cases and reports), and the “Pyccuracy” and “Robot” frameworks for end-user acceptance testing of web applications. Later chapters cover higher level concepts and tools, such as using nose to hook Python tests into “continuous integration” servers (both Jenkins and TeamCity are covered in detail), and assessing test coverage using the “coverage” tool (both as a metric, and to identify areas that need more tests). A detailed chapter on smoke- and load-testing includes practical advice on developing multiple test suites for different scenarios, and methods for stress-testing (for example, by capturing and replaying real world data) to discover weaknesses in a system before going to production. The final chapter distils the author’s experience into general advice on making testing a successful part of your code development methodology, both for new and legacy projects.
There’s a lot of good stuff in this book: the initial chapters on unittest and nose are particularly strong, and I can imagine returning to these in future as a reference. There is also a lot of excellent and hard-won practical advice from the author’s own experience – not only in these early chapters but throughout the book – which is consistently valuable (in this regard the final chapter is a real highlight and could easily stand alone – I will definitely be re-reading it soon). Elsewhere the various tools and topics are presented clearly with plenty of useful detail, and in some cases have demystified things that I’d always assumed were quite esoteric and difficult to do (nose in particular was a revelation to me, but also setting up continuous integration servers and measuring test coverage).
There are a few disappointments: the section on mock objects left me feeling baffled as to how to actually implement them in practice – a shame as it was something that I’d looked forward to learning. I’d also have liked something about approaches for handling difficult testing scenarios such as software which interacts with the file system or with large files – a few hints here would have been invaluable for me. There are typos in some commands and code in a few recipes (e.g. for nose), which meant I had to look up the correct syntax elsewhere – perhaps not so bad, but annoying (especially in a cookbook) – and since the recipes themselves aren’t numbered, this sometimes made it difficult to navigate between them.
However these are fairly minor quibbles, and in conclusion I was impressed with both the breadth of material covered by the book and the level of detail for many topics. Moreover I enjoyed reading it and was often left feeling excited at the prospect of being able to apply the ideas to my own projects, which is I think was one of the author’s aims (and no mean feat for a technical book). I think that the combination of the detail together with the author’s practical advice make this book both an excellent introduction to testing with Python, and a valuable resource to refer back to subsequently.
The Thinking Person's Guide to Happiness by Ruth Searle
10th July 2011
The Love Of A Good Woman by Alice Munro
8th July 2011
This is a collection of short stories which seem broadly to be about relationships between men and women, and parents and daughters. Generally I struggle with short story fiction - this was a book group choice - as to me the stories can often seem rather contrived and oddly truncated, and leaves me feel less invested in the characters. However I did enjoy these more than I'd expected: the stories seem to a bit more rounded and satisfying, and the characters populating them seemed to have space to breathe. Also Munro's writing is excellent throughout, quietly observing all the details of the lives that she writes about.
Unusually for me, I enjoyed all the stories in this collection - only the title story seemed to fall a little flat with its ending, although I still found it memorable. If I had to pick favourites then probably the last two have stuck in my mind the most vividly: "My Mother's Dream" is about a young widowed mother's struggle with her baby and her husband's sisters, while in "Before the Change" a grown up daughter returns home to live with her father after a failed engagement. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to read something that I wouldn't normally pick up, and I'd definitely consider reading more by Alice Munro in the future.
Finch by Jeff VanderMeer
10th June 2011
The third book in Jeff VanderMeer's series set in Ambergris sees the city's population subdued by the fungaloid beings called "gray caps", who have finally risen up after centuries living underneath it. Using their fungus-based technology to keep the city's inhabitants in a state of near-anarchy, the gray caps seem most intent on constructing two enormous towers for an unknown purpose.
Against this background, detective John Finch (forced reluctantly to work for the gray caps, who are unaware of his former existence as a member of the resistance) is called in to investigate a double murder - a human and a gray cap discovered dead in an apartment. The case winds up putting him in the firing line of spies, rebels and the gray caps, each of whom want something from him, as well as revealing the true nature of the gray caps' towers. Ultimately Finch is forced to come to terms with his own buried past, his compromised present, and to make a choice about the fate of the city and its people.
It's fascinating to see the city of the previous two "Ambergris" books (City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword) transformed, ruined in fact; it's also satisfying to finally learn something about both the origins and motivations of the gray caps, and aspects of the world beyond Ambergris (such as the ancient fortress of Zamilon). However, against this VanderMeer keeps the focus primarily on Finch, telling his story almost as a classic detective noir: imagine the "Maltese Falcon" or "Casablanca", if Bogart had carried a fungal gun, and humans could be colonised, transformed and destroyed by fungal-spores.
At same time these fantastical elements don't overwhelm the story, which - like all good noirs - is ultimately about trust, and walking the tightrope between self-preservation and doing the right thing. "Finch" is a brilliant read and had me hooked from the moment I started it; so while perhaps the fantasy/noir genre is not for everyone, if any of the above sounds interesting to you then I'd recommend it wholeheartedly - I don't think you'll be disappointed.
The Manchester Man by Mrs G. Linnæus Banks
3rd June 2011
"The Manchester Man" tells the story of Jabez Clegg, rising from humble origins (an orphan of unknown parents, pucked from the floodwaters of the river Irk just before the nineteenth century, and adopted by the poor but hardworking tanner who rescued him) to become through his own efforts a respected figure in Manchester society - a gentleman, no less! Along the way Jabez encounters various obstacles, including class prejudice and unrequited love, which he meets and overcomes through his strength of character and sense of honour.
The book was first published in 1876, and although a work of fiction it does take in many contemporary historical events - both major (for example the economic effects of the Napoleonic Wars on ordinary people, and the infamous Peterloo Massacre of 1819) and minor (an account of a baby being rescued from the flooding is fictionalised as Jabez's own story). Also several significant characters in the book - the Reverend Joshua Brookes, the confectioner Mrs Clowes, and school mistress "Madam" Broadbent - were all real Manchester figures of the day.
If the story perhaps feels formulaic and somewhat melodramatic to a modern reader, it is still an engaging read and generally manages to accommodate the historical detail within the telling. It's also interesting to think how attitudes to certain things have changed (for example, infant mortality) although some of that may be the style. Ultimately although not a book I would ever have thought of reading (in fact I think it's unlikely I'd ever have come across it, except as a book group recommendation), "The Manchester Man" turned out to an enjoyable and educational read.
Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
8th May 2011
In "Switch", Chip and Dan Heath present a set of tactics that can be used to overcome obstacles to personal and cultural change. At the book's core is the idea an individual's psyche can be divided into an emotional side (characterised as "the elephant") and a rational side (characterised as "the rider"): the key to successful change is to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each, by using appropriate strategies to ensure you get the best from each.
At the highest level they break this down into three broad areas. The first two are to "direct the rider" (analysing the situation to find things that are already working, figuring out specific key changes that need to be made, and providing a clear picture of how to get there) and "motivate the elephant" (giving the case for change a strong emotional charge that engages people at a gut level, shrinking the change so that it looks less threatening and more achievable, and encouraging people so that they feel the change is something that they both want and can actually achieve). The third area ("shape the path") is creating environments and habits that encourage and sustain the change process.
Along the way the authors present numerous case studies which illustrate and reinforce the particular points that they want to make. While the style is sometimes rather breathless and Gladwell-esque, these are often very effective and memorable, and do make the book extremely readable. There are also "clinic" sections dotted through the chapters with various scenarios which the reader is encouraged to try and apply the ideas to, which are useful but might have been better pushed to the end of each chapter. One potential drawback of featuring so many illustrative anecdotes is that the general rules get a little overwhelmed and lost in so much detail, whereas ultimately their change recipe is actually quite simple and elegant. Fortunately they include a very nice one-page bullet-point summary at the end which is well worth copying to refer back to.
Having not tried to apply these ideas to a real-world change yet I can't really say yet how effective they might be, although I suspect that anyone looking for a magic bullet for change will be disappointed: change can be an intrinsically difficult process and requires both perseverance and imagination. However as a clear, readable and entertaining guide, "Switch" does provide a good framework for understanding where obstacles to change might come from and how to best direct your energies to overcome them.
The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor
2nd May 2011
Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer
13th April 2011
City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer
6th April 2011
Lost in Music by Giles Smith
1st April 2011
Giles Smith’s Hornby-esque memoir about his life-long love affair with pop music is an amusing confection, perhaps not as funny or profound as the quotes from the Spectator, Telegraph or indeed John Peel might lead you to believe but somehow still engaging.
The book recounts various episodes from Smith’s life through the 70s and 80s as an irredeemable fan of pop, and although he aspires to - and arguably to a minor degree actually achieves - success both as a musician (living the pop star dream, albeit in a very low-budget way) and as a journalist, ultimately he remains a fan: aware of the very ridiculous nature of the stars and the business, he admits to being unable to escape from the sense of romance and feelings of awe, even when as an adult he meets real pop stars.
Perhaps ironically though, Smith often seems to be a little too self-conscious to be truly lost in music, and one the problems with many of his anecdotes is that he can overemphasise the sense of feeling ridiculous without always explaining the buzz of pop. However it's not a bad book, and at it's best captures that feeling of being a fan of pop music of a very specific era: a very middle-class, suburban English love affair - the passion undercut with awkwardness and embarrassment.
Python 2.6 Text Processing: Beginner's Guide by Jeff McNeil
30th March 2011
This is a practical introduction to a wide range of methods for reading, processing and writing textual data from a variety of structured and unstructured data formats. Aimed primarily at novice Python programmers with elementary knowledge of the language basics but new to text processing, the book offers hands-on examples for various processing techniques: these range from low-level (e.g. Python’s built-in libraries for handling strings, regular expressions, and formats such as JSON, XML and HTML) through to the more advanced (using 3rd party libraries to parse custom grammars, and for indexing and searching large text archives). In addition to chapters on Unicode, internationalisation, working with templates, and writing formats like PDF and Excel, there is also a great deal of general supporting material on working with Python (including installing packages, and using virtualenv), and the differences introduced by Python 3.
The book covers a lot of ground and moves quickly - I think it’s fair to say that the range of techniques is quite ambitious, with the inevitable consequence that many chapters are more introductory than definitive. However the hands-on approach is largely successful at providing working examples at each stage to illustrate the key points. (I also felt that the example code was of better-than-average quality.) Aside from a surprisingly unsatisfying chapter on structured markup (reluctantly, I would recommend looking elsewhere for an introduction to XML processing with Python) and a few niggling typos, there’s a lot of excellent material in this book, and the author has a knack for presenting some tricky concepts in a deceptively easy-to-understand manner: the chapter on regular expressions is possibly one of the best introductions to the subject that I’ve ever seen. Chapters on encodings and internationalization, advanced parsing, and indexing and searching were also highlights (as was the section on Python 3 in the appendix).
So overall I really enjoyed working through the book and felt I learned a lot. I think this is a great introduction to a wide range of text processing techniques in Python, both for novice Pythonistas (who will undoubtedly also benefit from the more general Python tips and tricks presented in the book) and more experienced programmers who are looking for a place to start learning about text processing. Finally, I should disclose that I got a free (e)copy of the book from the publisher in return for reviewing it, and this is an edited version of my review (posted on Amazon and on my blog). Also, a sample chapter can be freely downloaded from the book’s website.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
22nd March 2011
Swim For Life by Greg Whyte
9th March 2011
Greg Whyte is a former Olympic pentathlete turned sports scientist (possibly most famous in the UK for coaching comedian David Walliams on his Channel swim for Sports Relief in 2006) and his book "Swim for Life" aims to cover all aspects of swimming, from first-timers through to experienced fitness and competitive swimmers. As well as tips on equipment, technique, nutrition, and after-swim care, it also has advice on setting goals and monitoring progress to stay motivated, along with training plans and land-based exercises to complement pool work.
It's certainly a very attractive book with plenty of inviting colour photos, but these disguise the fact that many of the chapters are rather slim and lack detail. I suspect that the emphasis on fitness swimming won't be of much interest to purely recreational swimmers, while those with more experience might find there's insufficient depth in many sections (somewhat ironically, the most detailed chapter is the one on land work). I also found the explanations of the four major strokes very confusing, with the pictures not clearly related to the text and further complicated by the use of some overly technical language.
That aside there is still some interesting material in here. The concept of "swim volume" (a combination of the frequency, intensity and length of your swimming sessions) as a way of monitoring your swimming was new to me, and clearly presented. Also the advice on tumble turns and basic diving is refreshingly novel, and the inclusion of a chapter on outdoor swimming is topical. So while by no means essential, for someone like me (half recreational, half fitness swimmer but with no competitive ambitions) there might still be some value in this book.
Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything by Kevin Cook
6th March 2011
"Titanic Thompson" tells the life story of "America's greatest hustler", Alvin Thomas. 'Titanic' earned his nickname because (according to one story) he "sank everyone" with his outrageous hustles. Born in 1892 and living to the age of 82, his life spanned prohibition, the depression, two world wars and the making of Las Vegas, the modern games of both poker and golf, and - with the construction of the interstate highways in the 1950s - modern America itself. Along the way he encountered both the famous and the infamous - perhaps most notably Al Capone - and became the inspiration for the character of gambler "Sky" Masterson in "Guys and Dolls" (subsequently played on screen by Marlon Brando).
The stories of many of Titanic's alleged hustles are both amusing and fascinating. Not only an accomplished cardsharp, his repartee of tricks included hurling objects over high buildings and beating local champions - especially golf pros - at their own game. His skills were real, perfected through endless hours of practice: whatever the game, the hustler's real trick is of course to persuade people to bet against him by making them believe that he could be beaten (which also requires anonymity - something that became increasingly difficult to maintain over time, even with someone as widely travelled as Thompson). Although he won (and sometimes lost) huge sums, money never seemed to be of great interest to him - he seems to have been incredibly inventive and often worked hard to create the elaborate set ups for his schemes.
Given all this incredible material, Titanic's life story should have made for fascinating reading. Unfortunately for me Cook's writing was rather flat and superficial, with globs of peripheral historical detail seemingly thrown in almost at random, as often as not confusing rather than clarifying things. The dramatic social changes that Thompson must have witnessed are merely hinted at, and most seriously there didn't seem to be any real insight into the character of Titanic himself - Cook's portrait is oddly blank, and seems to gloss over the deeper complexities of the man and his motivations. I think there's a great book to be written about Titanic Thompson; this, sadly - while interesting enough - isn't it.
Overcoming Loneliness and Making Friends by Márianna Csóti
14th February 2011
What a fantastic little book. Part of the Sheldon Press "Overcoming Common Problems" series of self-help books, "Overcoming Loneliness..." is perhaps a little misnamed, as really the emphasis is on developing the skills needed to form, maintain and deepen friendships.
The book starts by asking what a "friend" is, why as human beings we need the kinds of social interactions that different types of friendships provide, and the course that friendships can take - the reasons why some might be short lived (for example, those formed on holidays) whilst others flourish over a lifetime (most significantly with a partner) - before going on to examine the different types of loneliness that people experience, and various factors such as shyness and low self-esteem that interfere with developing satisfactory relationships.
A significant chunk of the book then deals with advice on making and maintaining friendships, for example by improving your communication skills, dealing with feelings of social anxiety, understanding the types of information it's wise to disclose to others in different situations, and establishing boundaries by behaving assertively. There are also useful chapters on giving and receiving feedback (such as praise or criticism), and on taking friendship further with a long-term partner.
The style is straightforward and draws on the author's own experiences, and I liked that there is no suggestion of a quick fix - just the quietly sensible advice that knowledge, awareness and practice are the way to make new friends and improve the relationships we already have. As someone who often feels he struggles in social situations (especially when meeting new people) I found lots of useful insights that have helped me to better understand how social interactions work, and to challenge and change some of the faulty expectations and beliefs that have hindered me in the past. It's also given me more confidence that my social skills aren't perhaps too bad after all, and will be a great resource to draw on in future to improve them further. Highly recommended.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
3rd February 2011
It's the early 1990s as Patrick Bateman narrates episodes from his daily life. He spends his days (in between elaborate grooming and exercise regimes) working on Wall Street, and his evenings having improbable dinners with an interchangeable collection of colleagues and acquaintances - all while ogling "hardbody" waitresses, trying to score drugs in fashionable nightclubs, and having unlikely sexual encounters with his various female friends; and his nights torturing and murdering people.
Ellis' infamous book oscillates between (almost cartoonish) satire on the vacuousness of his protagonist's life (the endlessly detailed descriptions of clothing, meals, Hi-Fi equipment and music contrast with his inability to tell his acquaintances apart from each other) and the increasingly sickening and gruesome scenes of murder (equally detailed and appallingly graphic). As the book progresses Bateman seems to become more and more unhinged, however we can never really feel sure whether he's really committed the acts that he describes or whether he's just imagining them. For example in one almost hilariously deranged episode he recounts a public killing spree and ends with him leaving a full confession on his lawyer's answering machine - which the lawyer later congratulates him on as a "great joke". As with the majority of Bateman's actions, there seem to be no consequences, and we have no way of knowing if they are fantasy, or if he really has committed these crimes and they simply don't matter in the wider world. Ultimately nothing he does seems to leave any trace.
I don't think that this is a book I can really say I enjoyed reading, but in terms of the thoughts and feelings it provoked I'm glad that I did. There's definitely a humorous streak running through "American Psycho" - but it's a very black kind of comedy. Spending so much time inside Bateman's head I think does something to your own, and I was reminded of reading "The Catcher in the Rye" a few years ago - another book where you're completely immersed in the central character's world view. Bateman's complete lack of any hint of morality in the end disturbed me even more than the horror. Not an easy book then, and not for the squeamish, but recommended with those caveats.
Simply SQL by Rudy Limeback
2nd February 2011
"Simply SQL" is an overview of SQL targeted at web application developers, with the intention of filling a gap between the basic "SQL 101"-type tutorials (seemingly compulsory in just about every introductory article or book about web programming) and texts covering more advanced topics which are perhaps not so directly relevant to the straightforward requirements of many web applications.
The book is divided into two groups of chapters: the first deals with the details of the SQL language and comprises the bulk of the book, while the second covers some basic database design concepts (specifically SQL data types, relational integrity, and the use of "special structures" for particular situations). The majority of the book focuses on the SELECT command, with only a short introduction to the other "usual suspects" (CREATE, ALTER, INSERT, UPDATE, DELETE and so on): each chapter covers one specific SELECT clause - FROM, WHERE, GROUP BY and so on - in extensive detail, and illustrated with examples from sample applications. The heavy emphasis on SELECT might seem odd, but it makes a lot of sense in the context of web applications where data is typically read from the database far more than it's written.
The clear and detailed explanations are a pleasure to read, and the examples are excellent for clarifying some of the slipperier concepts (I found them invaluable for understanding the subtleties of the GROUP BY and HAVING clauses, used for aggregating data from subsets of rows, which were completely new to me). I felt that I learned a lot of useful things, for example, the distinctions between the FLOAT and DECIMAL data types (DECIMALs are exact - within certain limits - while FLOATs are approximate), the concepts of views, derived tables and subqueries, and use of foreign keys for maintaining relational integrity.
It's important to note that "Simply SQL" is based on the SQL standard (although the author indicates where popular implementations such as MySQL deviate from it) and that it doesn't cover any of the programming APIs, so it's not really a reference text. However with its clear and detailed explanations it looks like it would be a useful companion to more traditional reference or cookbooks and will definitely reward re-reading. So overall highly recommended.
London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp
22nd January 2011
Jonathan Kemp's novel consists of three loosely connected first-person narratives spaced approximately 50 years apart from each other, and telling the story of gay life in London over the last century: in 1854 Jack Rose is a rent boy who becomes involved with Oscar Wilde (and witnesses Wilde's downfall); in 1954 Colin Read is a middle-aged aspiring artist who struggles with social stigma, illegality and his own repressed sexuality as he begins a tentative relationship with a male model; and in 1998 David is another rent boy living a life of excess which ultimately ends in prison.
The stories are told episodically and are interleaved with each other but otherwise are only tenuously connected, so the reader is left to consider the parallels and differences between the worlds that each character inhabits and the lives that they live - for example, there are echoes of the hedonism of Jack's 1890s in the excesses of David's late 1990s; at the same time the outcome of Wilde's trial and conviction sets the tone for the repression of Colin's 1950s.
I found the book quite a compelling read, although for me the 1950s sections were the most plausible - the outrageous parties and sexual acts of the other two strands often seemed almost cartoonishly over the top (although maybe I'm just a bit naive). The descriptions of the characters' sexual encounters are frequently also quite explicit, which might not be to everyone's taste. However, a short essay by the author at the end of this edition sheds more light on the structure of the book and added to my understanding and enjoyment. Overall a very readable, interesting and at times thought-provoking book.
The Contractors' Handbook by Dave Chaplin
13th January 2011
Describing itself as "The Expert Guide for UK Contractors and Freelancers", Dave Chaplin's book is a detailed and comprehensive overview of how to operate as a contractor in the UK market (with a nod to overseas contracting towards the end of the book). It covers a lot of ground from the basics through to quite complicated topics such as contract law, and draws directly on the author's own experiences as an IT contractor.
The book begins with an overview of contracting for first-timers and those still considering a move from permanent to contract work, with detailed advice on setting rates and how to find and secure contracts. While aimed primarily at contractors, some of the information on CVs, interviews and working with recruiters could be equally applicable to the permanent job market. Subsequent sections are devoted to the trading vehicles available to contract workers, and the associated legal and financial issues (most significantly the IR35 tax legislation, which essentially determines whether a contractor is considered to be self-employed or a "disguised employee", and taxed accordingly). It also covers handling common problems, and managing personal finance, professional insurance and time off - all of which are very different for the contractor compared with permanent employment.
As the title indicates this book is very much a handbook, and the amount of detail is almost overwhelming on first reading (particularly with regard to IR35). However the information is clear and well-presented, and the contents are well laid out so it's quite easy to find the relevant chapter or section (and making up for the missing index) - so I can imagine "The Contractors' Handbook" becoming an invaluable reference over time.
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
9th January 2011
In late 16th century Istanbul, the Sultan has commissioned two illuminated manuscripts: one has traditional illustrations, prepared openly in the traditional style in sultan's workshop under the guidance of head illustrator Master Osman, while the other - which controversially combines traditional depictions with the new "Frankish styles" from Europe - is the secret work of four master miniaturist painters (Elegant, Stork, Olive and Butterfly) coordinated by Enishte Effendi. However, this project is threatened when Elegant is murdered, exposing the deep divisions between the illustrators and their masters, also pulling in Enishte's daughter Shekure and her would-be husband Black (recently returned to Istanbul to assist Enishte).
The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of the characters - including some who are dead (such as the murdered Elegant), and some who are fictional even within the context of the book (for example a dog, a gold coin, a horse) - and combines elements of whodunnit (who is the murderer?) and soap operatic romance (between Shekure and Black) alongside extended meditations on the Islamic art of the period. While initially appearing to be tangential to the plot, these sections - wherein various characters ponder the nature of art and its relationship to religion - are actually central. The question of whether incorporating elements of Western art could be considered immoral or blasphemous provides the motivation for Elegant's murder, while the question of whether a painter should have an individual "style" is ultimately the key to unmasking the murderer.
The large number of character viewpoints and the juxtaposition of the (often vaguely comic) plots with the more serious chapters about art and religion meant that in places "My Name is Red" could be a little frustrating and slow, although it definitely gains momentum in the final third. At the same time its descriptions of the masterpieces produced by the minituarists (and comparisions with western traditional art) did make me consider how painting can implicitly embody deep cultural and religious values that might otherwise go unnoticed. So while not without some flaws, overall I found it an entertaining and thought-provoking read.