Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

This is a grim read. Goldacre makes it as readable and fun as he possibly can but this the point he is making is that the whole system of medicine is a big con, and based on lies. He argues that the pharmaceutical industry have been producing distorted and unrepresentative data on their products since forever. He says that doctors have no real possibility of being able to properly prescribe a drug because they have no idea what works and what does not. Also, there will never ever be a way of telling what drugs work until the pharmaceutical industry admit their lies, throw everything away, and start all over again from scratch.

Yes, it’s grim. It is worth a read, though, and Goldacre gives the reader permission to skim through some of it, which is good, because, unless you love to discuss the minutiae of clinical trials, you will have to. I am by no means a scientist but I am a lover of correct, clear and useful data and Goldacre makes some great suggestions about how trial results could be presented in a clear, helpful and honest way.

Goldacre also makes suggestions about what we, the person on the street, or patient in the hospital, might do to help the situation, but we are a very long way from having the power to make any dent at all in the side of the massively powerful pharmaceutical companies. Still, worth a read if you enjoy getting annoyed about things you can do nothing about, and if you want to be at least a little bit informed about what you might be putting in to your body.

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

This is a young adult novel that I read for the banned books themed book club that I attend. It is set in the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington, and it has apparently been banned from many schools in surrounding areas. It deals with such heavy and controversial subjects as poverty, alcoholism, bullying, race, friendship, love, family, and basketball. Presumably there are a lot of parents in the Pacific Northwest who would prefer that their children did not read about these issues, which seems a shame to me, since many children must be exposed to many of those things at some point, except only the unlucky few have to deal with poverty, alcoholism and high school sports.

Out protagonist, Junior, has some physical problems, but he is very intelligent and makes the difficult decision to go to school off his reservation. As a non-American, this book was very educational to me about rural American life, and Indian reservation life. I learned a lot and it made me think a lot. I am thirty-seven years old. There was some very upsetting stuff in this book, mostly around alcoholism, family, and ultimately, race. I would expect that only a thoughtful and maturn young adult would enjoy this, but that is no reason to have it banned from schools.

Junior is an incredibly strong and likeable kid. I think the book is semi-autobiographical, so not “absolutely true” and the Indian in question is not, in my opinion, at all “part-time.” To my mind he is certainly a full-time Indian and his race is in his thoughts all the time. To me, that is a big theme of the book. There are lots of very sad parts in this book, but it is ultimately uplifting, at least for our protagonist, and I think it would be very valuable for the average young adult American to read to help them to empathise with the Indians who are not as fortunate or as ballsy as Junior.

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A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

This is a “companion piece” to Atkinson’s completely wonderful Life After Life. There was no way she could possibly top that.

Our protagonist of Life After Life, Ursula, lived many possibly lives in the novel, and this is the story of one of her brothers, Teddy. Atkinson has kind of assumed one of Ursula’s realities, since she features a little in the book, but this is mostly about Teddy’s war, and subsequent years, and his offspring.

This is sorta-kinda in the same vein as Life After Life in that it skips about in time to tell the story, and we hear from several of the characters’ perspectives in order to tell it properly. Such a lot of this book is about Teddy’s offspring, and of course every human is created by chance, and might not have existed but for the smallest change in choice of actions, just as every one of Ursula’s realities changed course from the smallest of changes.

This is a nice enough novel and certainly thought-provoking with an excellent and sobering ending.

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K Dick

This is the story of a futuristic bounty-hunter, who has the busiest day of his career, he is out to find and “retire” six of the fancy new androids they have these days. The androids are made for use in the colonies on Mars, but sometimes they escape and come back to the ravaged and almost-empty planet Earth. I am not sure why they want to come to Earth, but they do. Our hero, Rick, can spot the androids because there is one major difference between them and humans: they lack empathy.

Rick lives in a depopulated San Francisco. When they book was originally written, in 1968, it was set in 1992, I think, but since it has been updated my copy was set in 2021. Earth has had a terrible war and all the sensible people have left for colonies on other planets. So, it might be time for another update because I do not think we are capable of colonising other planets any time soon.

If humans stay behind on planet Earth the men have to wear lead codpieces to stop themselves from becoming sterile (apparently the women do not have to protect their lady bits with anything at all, which is odd, because there was me thinking it was the lady bits that did most of the life-giving stuff), and there is a danger of the pollution turning you in to a “chickenhead” – someone who is of very low intelligence. Neither “chickenheads” nor sterile people can go to the colonies. There is also some odd philosophical stuff about keeping animals, even electric ones, and a new religion based on empathy.

I quite like the idea of getting my own android: a super-intelligent humanoid that lasts around four years who will do all my jobs for me. They are a bit stiff and uncommunicative and feel no empathy. Judging from Dick’s writing style, perhaps he was an early prototype because this book is rather dull. The dialogue is dull, there is no action (despite it being made into sexy 80s space thriller, Blade Runner) and I had to make myself plod through it’s 210 pages.

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The Martian by Andy Weir

I read this for the Huntington Beach Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Group, and I grumbled that the last book we read was not very sci-fi and not at all fantasy, so I am very pleased to say that this was exactly the sort of thing I was hoping that this group would introduce me to. This was about as sci-fi as I get. It is about an astronaut! In the future! On Mars!

It is set in an undisclosed time in the future, where humankind is able to send astronauts to Mars, and then bring them back again. Surprisingly, though, the future that Weir can imagine still has a NASA, which still has mission control in Houston, and the astronauts all have very American names, except for a token German. The Chinese do get involved in the story later on, though. And of course the main character is male. So, in this future we can get to Mars and back but not really all that much has changed.

Our hero, Mark, has been left behind on the planet by his crew mates because he thought he was dead (this is not a spoiler). The story is about how he survives alone on a planet with just the equipment they left behind. They should have been there for a week or so but he has to figure out ways to survive for much longer. He adapts more or less everything he has and we learn so much about how astronauts could survive on Mars in the future.

It is currently being made in to a film starring Matt Damon, and I do not much like knowing this sort of thing when I read the book and then “seeing” the actor as the character in my head, but Damon would do OK as the lead in this story. I am really looking forward to seeing how they managed to turn this into a film, because the main character spends so much of it as the only person on the planet, so there is not a great deal of dialogue. Much of the book is our hero’s diary.

I bloody loved this book. In many ways it is not at all my usual thing, but I do like fiction that also teaches me things and this certainly did. It turns out that Weir does not have a career at NASA himself, as I had wondered, he just worked very hard at researching his book. I learned an awful lot of interesting things about Mars from this book, and thoroughly enjoyed the story. A sign of a great book is when you really want to get to the end to see how it turns out, but then you really don’t want to get to the end because then you won’t be reading it anymore.

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Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

This is the second novel from the writer made famous by Gone Girl. It is another dark whodunnit thriller with lots of horrible murders. Having read her other two, I thought that I knew who the murderer was straight away (hint: I had assumed the worst), but I was wrong. It was cleverer and more complicated than that, but I did guess who did it eventually. Flynn gives you just enough clues to work it out before she tells you, and I quite like that.

This is set in the USA Midwest, again. Our protagonist is a woman with mental health issues, again, and the murders are horrifying and involve children, again. So, it is safe to say that Flynn likes to keep to a theme. She also likes her female characters to have a shocking evil streak, which I also quite like. The story is a grim and sad one, there is closure at the end, but there was never going to be a happy ending.

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Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

At 918 pages long the strongest feeling I have on finishing this book is relief. I think I quite liked it when I started it, I can’t really remember anymore. I read it for a book club, otherwise there is no way that I would pick up a book of this length if it was not about Britain between the World Wars or Tudor England. Actually, there is a tiny bit of Britain during WWII in this story, but really not enough to ease my pain.

This is a good book, and well-written, with lots of plots and sub-plots to keep you going, I do not really think the weakness is in the novel, it is exciting, and wonderfully done. The problem is my short attention span. I blame television. The book cleverly bounces between historical fiction and (sort of) sci-fi thriller. Although if I had not read it for the Huntington Beach Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Group, then I would not know that it was sci-fi.

The historical fiction part covers lots of all the usual war stuff, code-breaking (including Alan Turing as a character), submarines, the Philippines, Japan, intelligence units and Marines. The (sort of) sci-fi thriller part covers internet security, fibre-optic cables (remember them?!), a video-messaging scheme that sounds ludicrous nowadays, and the Philippines again. And, many of the characters in the 90s part are descended from the 40s part.

It nicely illustrates some parallels between WWII cryptography and late 90s internet security issues. The late 90s parts feel incredibly dated now, and it is weird to be reading that alongside chapters set in the 40s, then I have to keep reminding myself that the 90s were quite a long time ago, too. It was a poor choice for a book club, in my opinion; we read a third for each meeting over three meetings, and it got to be a dull discussion.

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