The Journey in Between

The Journey in Between: A Thru-Hiking Adventure on El Camino de Santiago (2010) by Keith Foskett describes walking the great French and Spanish walking trail.

As a veteran of long walks I’ve done the Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian trail, well, I’ve read books about them anyway and Foskett’s book compares quite well with other books that focus on the trail and the people you meet rather than just the author’s issues.

If you’re into these kinds of books then this one holds up. It’s perhaps a bit thin on describing the churches and the history of El Camino but that can be obtained from other sources. It’s also an inspiration to people like myself who just read these books and wonder how they can one day wangle doing one of these walks.

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The Sheriff of Yrnameer

The Sheriff of Yrnameer (2009) by Michael Rubens is a pretty fun sci-fi comedy that definitely has its moments. The lead is Cole, a swindler and a bit of a loser who is constantly running from debts. He is pursued by Kenneth, a tentacle equiped super able bounty hunting alien who likes to watch Cole run.

Cole steals a ship to escape Kenneth and winds up taking a special cargo and two passengers toward Yrnameer – a legendary planet that isn’t full of ads. Chaos and comedy ensue.

It’s all pretty good, it’s entertaining but not brilliant. For anyone looking for something light and fun and who likes sci-fi comedy it’s worth a read.

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel (2016) by Jodie Archer and Matthew Lockers describes the application of Machine Learning (ML) Text Mining techniques to analysing the text of best selling and non-best selling books.

Various critics have attempted to extra the ‘seven stories’ or something similar at various times. They were limited, however, by being human and not being able to rapidly count words and do things like apply modern ML methods to hundreds of books to not only extract the themes and number of themes, but also the sentiment analysis and check on the language that was being used and find out if the authors had any words they used in odd ways or more frequently than normal. Today these things can be done. The authors also built a classifier that attempted to classify books as non-bestsellers and best-sellers. They say their classifier had 80% success rates. The book doesn’t give much more detail than that, presumably their papers do however.

They also say that their techniques when applied to some books such as Fifty Shades of Grey showed that their algorithm suggested it would be a best seller despite having graphic sex scenes that normally stop a book from being a bestseller.

What they say about the sentiment shifts in bestsellers, what sorts of words are used by the major characters and the number of themes in bestselling books is very interesting. It would presumably be useful to aspiring writers as well.

The book is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in what makes a bestseller and also for people who want to see what ML is now capable of doing in text analysis. It’s also worth noting that the authors say that their analysis led them to have a greater appreciation of the art of writing best sellers.

 

 

The Cat Inside

The Cat Inside (1986) by William Burroughs is a compilation of short pieces about cats that Burroughs encountered during his life and also provides an insight in Burroughs himself.

The book itself is short but also touching unless, of course, you hate cats, in which case it’s not going to work. The stories about Burroughs’ cats are sparse, short but clever. Also mentions of Burroughs’ love life, drug use and life go through the book. It’s also well written. It’s an interesting short book and a reminder of what a good writer Burroughs was.

The Knowledge

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch (2014) by Lewis Dartnell gives an overview of what the author thinks a small band of humans would need to rebuild society after a disaster that kills most of humanity.

The idea of what technological ideas and what would be needed to rebuild society is an interesting question. After an apocalypse what would be needed and how quickly could things be rebuilt? Dartnell goes through agriculture, food and clothing and then chemicals, metals and materials that would be needed to rapidly restart civilization.

The start of the book is definitely fascinating, working out how to get enough food to keep people going and then grow enough food is a huge problem. Then clothing and shelter would be critical, unless they were already there. Dartnell then gets into the chemicals, metals and other things that would be needed and how a small group of people could make them. However, it all becomes more of a science lesson in the core bits of technology that enable so many of us to live so well. This is where it falls down, if enough people survived then sure the knowledge of how to do things would make it through due to some of the millions of books around surviving and people starting to trade and specialize. This part of the book also becomes a bit dull.

Still, it’s an interesting read and would be well worth it for anyone contemplating writing apocalyptic fiction themselves.

Cod

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1999) by Mark Kurlansky is a surprisingly interesting book about a fish that has had a surprising role in history.

Kurlansky writes about just how important cod were for the Vikings and then the early explorers of North America. New England used code extensively and exploiting cod played a role in early settlement there. By salting or drying the fish they could be exported and made for cheap protein in other places including the West Indies where they were an important part of the slave trade as they fed slaves working on sugar plantations.

As technology improved with steam ships and then refrigeration the amount of cod caught they went up dramatically. This led to overfishing and the decimation of cod stocks. The book ends by looking at fishing villages where it’s no longer economically viable to fish. The book also makes the interesting point that government loans actually played a part in expanding mechanised fishing and that even in 1999 the world’s fishing industry brought in 70Bn but cost 90Bn to run, the difference being large subsidies. It would be interesting to know what the situation is like now with the rise of farmed fish, but that is outside the scope of this book.

The book is really surprisingly enjoyable. The chapters are also interspersed with recipes for cod.

Banana

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World (2007) by Dan Koeppel describes the importance, history and current problems of the banana. Like Salt, Cod and other books on a single commodity Koeppel manages to make the book an engaging read.

The current large, seedless bananas that we eat are fairly recent and also are fairly fragile. As they don’t have seeds and change rapidly they are highly susceptible to disease. The Cavendish, which today is the most common type is a replacement for the Gros Michel that was taken down by Panama disease. Today Cavendish plantations have been infected with it and other diseases.

The book looks at the importance, fragility and history of the banana. A lot of the book concerns the way large US companies ran the governments of central American countries for their own aims. It’s pretty dramatic.

Later chapters look at how scientists are trying to breed tougher and better bananas and the difficulty of doing so. The role of GM in making better bananas is also discussed.

It’s a really well done book on a subject that would seem at first glance to not be particularly interesting. It’s definitely worth a read.