How to Speak Science – Bruce Benamran

I’m a big fan of science. I positively enjoy science programming on tv (up to and including some of the more gruesome medical ones – I’m sure I recall watching televised surgery back in the 1980s) and like to think that I am more in tune with the rationality of science than more ‘touchy-feely’ practices. This doesn’t, however, mean that I am completely up to speed with all aspects of the subject. I liked chemistry at school, I think I have a good grasp of evolutionary theory but physics is something I’ve always struggled with. So, a book with the subtitle ‘Gravity, Relativity and Other Ideas That Were Crazy Until Proven Brilliant’ seemed perfect for filling in some of my knowledge gaps (and would be kinder than asking Rob to explain it all to me). The author is best known as a YouTube science communicator and promised a maths-free jaunt through the best bits of science history: it sounded like just my sort of thing.

41721806From the very beginning it is obvious that Benamran takes a very humourous approach to science education. While I was reading this book Rob had to get used to me giggling and reading bits out for his amusement – which is great as I’m a firm believer that if a thing is worth understanding it is worth understanding via the medium of humour. I think I got to grips with magnetism, atoms and even relativity but still failed to get to grips with mechanics. Everything else I could just about visualise in some way (although I did get a little confuddled with the explanation of time dilation involving virtually every American president I’ve ever heard of…) but I’ve definitely got a blind spot where mechanics are concerned. Lets just hope I never have to explain it in a life-or-death situation…There are some running gags in the book which I laughed at the first couple of times, then got a bit bored of, and then ended up looking for in a fond way – this sounds like a quality I admire in a teacher: the moment you look forward to their jokes. (Or ge-okes as my old geography teacher Mr Bogdin used to say…)

This is a great book for anyone wanting to understand more about some of the big concepts in science but who doesn’t have a very science-heavy educational background. For those who do have a good solid science education this would be a good source of ways to explain things involving far more analogies than formulae – more pirate’s eye patches and goats in trees than hard sums.  Science teachers of the future, I’m looking at you!



Fierce Fairytales – Nikita Gill

I’ve said it before – I’m a very lucky woman. I get to read books as part of my job and, sometimes, get offered free books by publishers (in exchange for reviews, obviously). Sometimes we are given lots of information – a detailed run-down of the plot, characters or the author – and sometimes just a short description. This book was briefly outlined as ‘feminist fairytales’ and, to be fair, I didn’t need to hear much more to make we want to read it.

9781409181590Firstly I should say that I wasn’t previously aware of the author, Nikita Gill.  She is, it appears, a big name on Instagram but I don’t really do Instagram (I run out of time frittering away hours on Twitter and Facebook – if I added another social media stream I think I’d never sleep!) so I went in blind and then was almost startled to find that the book was largely poetry.  It took me a little while to get used to it, to be honest – I quite enjoy poetry but this snuck up on me – but after a little while I began to appreciate what I was reading. Fairytales generally involve beautiful princesses, ancient castles, wicked step-mothers, fire-breathing dragons and valiant princes and evoke a feeling of a distant past: these poems and short tales are about far more modern lives. The evils these princesses have to face are body image, slut-shaming, gaslighting and patriarchy. This sounds like a big ask but these girls are being exhorted to forget being polite, pretty and pliable: we are reminded that girls can be determined, strong and downright bolshie and this is not a failure on their part. Girls can be friends with their dragons – they can be dragons – and sometimes step-mothers are driven into evil by their impossible lives. The boys aren’t forgotten either – girls are warned away from men who will try to break them and the boys themselves are encouraged to acknowledge their own feelings and not be afraid to own their weaknesses. The characters from our well-loved tales – Cinderella, Rapunzel, Peter Pan and Alice – all find new ways to resolve their stories: proof, if it were needed, that there can never just be one way of living.

The main message I took from these poems and stories is that girls (and boys) need to be given permission to be themselves. The ‘themselves’ they want to be – not one that society tries to force on them. I’m not sure I would suggest this book for younger children to read on their own – there is a fair amount of darkness here – but I would love to see it in the hands of mothers, giving them the incentive they need to let their girls and boys be as fierce and strong as they can. It would also be a good read for slightly older children (9+?) who have enjoyed books like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.


Relax Rewind…

I’ve always loved to read but it has only been in the past few years that it seems to have become quite so overwhelming. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all – I still enjoy the reading itself – but since moving from an academic to a general bookshop, and starting this blog, I’ve found I am reading more than ever.  I try to blog twice a week which means reading two books a week on average – obviously I can read more if I’m off work or read some books for younger readers and guest reviewers can take the pressure off from time to time (thanks to Rob and Charlotte in particular!) – and, on the whole I keep up the pace. Occasionally I can go a week or so with no post and, more rarely, even post three times in a week but I do okay. The only problem I have is that I am now reading, almost exclusively, new books. I often get these new books long before publication and, sometimes, in lovely, exclusive editions so I’m not complaining about this but sometimes I miss re-reading.

Re-reading is something I have enjoyed for most of my life. Most children have their favourite books and any parent who has had to read The Gruffalo, Peppa Pig or The Worst Witch for the eleventy-millionth time will know this. I liked to return to Alice (obviously), What Katy Did, and the Famous Five books and this habit of re-reading stuck with me. One of the reasons we have so many books at home is because I used to go back and read certain series or authors on a regular basis – Jane Austen, the Pern novels, Lord of the Rings. As time went by I got new favourites – I think I was reading Enchanted April at least once a year – but I still had time for my ‘regulars’ but now, with so many new books (and new favourites) I’ve had to give up re-reading. I’m starting to worry that I won’t get to read Emma again until I retire (unless we decide to do it for our book group, hmmm…..) so recently, after a long walk in rather miserable weather, when I decided that a bath would be better for my aging muscles than a shower I decided to just grab an old favourite and relax properly…This has started a brief spell of returning to old favourites – so here are a few I’ve managed to squeeze into my busy reading schedule.

The Grand Sophy – Georgette Heyer

md22585116621When I was at university, and had to read lots of Very Important Books, I would relax by reading Mills and Boon. They were almost perfect: light, inconsequential and no-one expected me to write an essay on them. The only way it could have been any more perfect is if the library in York had stocked the complete works of Georgette Heyer. Or even just one or two. And The Grand Sophy would be pretty much top of my list of candidates for inclusion. Sophy is the only daughter of Sir Horace Stanton-Lacy and is sent to stay with her aunt when her father is sent on a diplomatic mission to South America. Her aunt and her family are expecting a meek young lady but they end up with a 5’9″ force of nature. Heyer is always spot on with her Regency detailing but Sophy is a heroine who would fit in to a modern romance novel: forthright, good-humoured and strong-willed. The only slight issue is a chapter where she rescues one of her young cousins from the clutches of a money-lender – the descriptions of the money-lender are a tad anti-semitic for modern tastes (although probably fairly standard for the 1950s when it was written).The book is jam-packed with balls, flirtations, misunderstandings, wit and romance and finishes with a happy ending – all in all a pretty perfect book to relax in the bath with after a soggy walk…

Rain – Melissa Harrison

The soggy walk I took was one I organised for Sunday Assembly Leeds – a combination of a Bank Holiday weekend, injuries and a drastic downturn in the weather meant that only Rob and I went but we very much enjoyed our six-mile stroll along the canal from Saltaire to Bingley and back. Our usual assemblies involve songs (we sang a few rainy day songs as we went), cake (cream tea at the Five Rise Locks cafe) and a talk. In lieu of a guest speaker I told Rob about Melissa Harrison’s book about walking in the rain. Like the best of assembly talks this book is both fascinating, uplifting and gives lots of ideas for the reader/listener to put into practise.

28169568Harrison basically describes four walks in Britain, in varying sorts of rain and in each of the four seasons. As we found ourselves a walk in the rain isn’t necessarily a bad thing – particularly if it is a walk taken for pleasure rather a necessary one – raindrops on leaves are a soothing sound and rainy paths are usually rather less crowded. In fact we, like Harrison, discovered that there is a special sort of peacefulness to a wet walk – birds quieten, everything has its edges softened, stuff glistens. There is a lot else in the book which I didn’t recall when telling Rob about it – I re-read it a day or so later – so he missed hearing about the leech-powered storm alarm and the British Rainfall Organisation (now part of the Met Office and one of the most British things ever). As the glorious summer we have just enjoyed fades into memory you could do a lot worse than read this book and learn to appreciate our most common weather conditions!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling and Jim Kay

9781526602381I don’t suppose I need to say too much about the story element of this book. Most people who care to have read the books and many more have seen the films: and here is where this glorious illustrated edition comes in. The story is still there, word for word as you first experienced it, but it is enhanced so much by the illustrations. I’ve nothing against the films, if I’m not going for a walk they are a great way to while away a rainy Sunday, but it is great to see a different visual interpretation of Rowling’s actual words. I’m sure I’m not alone in mentally casting the film version of any book I read but when the film has already been made then it can be hard to get those images out of your head – for now I have both the film and Jim Kay characters visualised.

Interestingly it has been quite a while since I reread the Potter books – it could have been as far back as 2007 since I was in the habit of making sure I refreshed my memory of the whole story arc before the publication of each new book in the series – and I found I had forgotten a lot of the details. The early scenes with Uncle Vernon getting more and more frantic trying to avoid the letters arriving for Harry, all the Mirror of Erised episodes, how involved Neville Longbottom is from the start, so much… Serves me right for relying on the film versions for eleven years – I shouldn’t need telling that the book is nearly always better. And it really is with these stunning illustrations.



Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker

I used to live and work in Durham, in the University bookshop. It’s a beautiful city and I loved working there (although I lived in a pit village outside the city – the centre was way beyond my budget as a bookseller living on my own). I really enjoyed working with academics and students (no, honestly, I loved it), we coped with the waves of tourists who replaced students in the summer and, best of all, we had our own literature festival. It was, as they say, small but perfectly formed – all the bookstalls were done by me and one other bookseller (with Rob providing the motorised transport of books to venues) – and attracted some pretty big names. As I recall there were probably about a dozen or so events over a week and the biggest name we got was Richard Dawkins. Which is pretty big. I also recall wearing a Mog costume for one event (I think I wore it, but seem to recall a photo of me with Mog so maybe it was Michael in the suit) and dressing up in medieval kit for another (I vaguely recall it may have been a kids event based on a Robin Hood theme…). Happy days. Anyway, one person who was a bit of a shoo-in for the festival was Pat Barker, because she was a local author. This was, I think, after the publication of Regeneration but before Barker won the Booker with Ghost Road so she was a biggish name but not huge. I’m happy to say she is also a lovely person (the festival used to invite us booksellers along to the post-event meals, all the authors were polite to us but Pat Barker was especially friendly).

38470228In The Silence of the Girls Barker returns to the wartime setting she worked with so well in the Regeneration trilogy but with a few key differences: this time she is focussing on the events of the Trojan War and she writes largely from the point of view of the women whose lives are so brutally changed by the conflict. Life for women in this period is a bit of a mixed bag. The women of the upper classes have all the material benefits – palaces, jewels, beautiful clothes, the best food and wine – but they don’t have the freedoms we take for granted. They can’t walk around freely, they have to be heavily veiled, and they are not free. Even the women who are not slaves are the property of their fathers or husbands – the only women who are not property are the prostitutes and they are, effectively, treated as common property. Of course the main character, Briseis, Queen of a city near Troy, doesn’t realise that her life is as good as it will get. She is very young and feels dominated by her mother in law but this is nothing compared to her life once the Greeks have defeated her city. The men and boys are killed – even pregnant women are slain in case the child they carry is male – and the women are now become the property of the Greeks. Briseis is awarded to Achilles as a trophy – property once again, but now she has no power or status and, in fact, becomes a pawn in the struggles between Achilles and the Greek king Agamemnon.

The history here is told well – I don’t know the Iliad that well but I’m pretty certain Barker sticks to the events within it – but the real meat of the book is Briseis and the way she survives what life (and the Trojan War) has thrown at her. Her inner strength as she submits, in body at least, to the change from Queen to bed-slave; her determination to stay alive, even as some of the women who share her fate chose suicide; her certainty that, even though she must share the bed of a Greek hero, and may even grow to love or respect them, she is still a Trojan woman. And, thanks to Pat Barker, the voices of those Trojan women are silent no longer.


Mystery of Three Quarters – Sophie Hannah

Two things I have problems with: authors writing sequels/homages to famous authors and turning them into something which their original author would have hated and feeling obliged to read the whole of a series. Let’s deal with the second one first – in terms of tv and films I’m definitely a commitment-phobe. I don’t do box sets and while I will happily settle in on an otherwise unoccupied Sunday evening with an episode of Poldark I’m not bothered if I miss one or two. I’m pretty much the same with books – if you have to read all of the books in a series to ‘get it’ then it has to be special. Certainly since my reading habit got quite so bad (or possibly good…) I’ve found very few that I’ve stuck with. Harry Potter. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books. The odd trilogy (Wool, for example) but generally I stop at the first book in a series. Nothing wrong with the writing, storytelling or world-building but my motto is ‘so many books, so little time’. I do need something really special in an author before I’ll read anything they write – and I will do it, believe me. I currently have custody of the entire collection of Georgette Heyer Regency romances which Mum and I have amassed over the years. My second problem – tone-deaf sequels – is something else which has made me wary over the years. Talking of Regency romance my Mum does tell of a terrible one where a young lady settles down for tea at White’s – we both hate rubbish historical research – but my personal worst sin is trying to put gratuitous sex into Jane Austen sequels. Unless you are writing for a themed erotica collection, just no.

Sophie Hannah has managed to avoid adding any historical wrongness (that I can see – I don’t claim any expertise on the middle years of the Twentieth century) to her Hercule Poirot novels but, more than that, she continues to create interesting and compelling adventures for Christie’s Belgian detective. Because they are not a series I find myself able to dip in and out without feeling like I’ve made a commitment: because they are so good I have read all three books produced so far!

40114576In The Mystery of Three Quarters Poirot finds himself confronted by the rather formidable Sylvia Rule for sending her a letter accusing her of murder. The problem is that he didn’t send the letter. Or the ones making the same accusation towards three others – John McCrodden, son of a judge who is a firm supporter of the death penalty, Hugo Dockerill, a teacher at a boy’s school, and Miss Annabel Treadway, who is the grand-daughter of the deceased man. Of course the little grey cells are propelled into action and we soon begin to learn of a web of connections between the four. It begins to appear that the dead man, Barnabas Pandy, did have connections to a number of them and that all four are, if only tangentially, linked. Was Pandy murdered? Was one of the accused guilty of his death? Why did the letter-writer want to involve Poirot? These questions all need to be answered and Poirot attempts to find the answers with the help of Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool, the friends and family of all the accused and a small slice of cake…

Another excellent outing for Poirot – deftly plotted, a blend of humour and bloodshed which Christie would have been proud of, and believable characters. The Belgian continues to have a future in Sophie Hannah’s capable hands.


Now We Shall Be Entirely Free – Andrew Miller

After a brief run of science fiction books I found myself, a week or so ago, sitting in a field in Oxfordshire enjoying interesting music, supping the odd glass of wine and going back to one of my other literary loves: historical fiction. Since I was, at the time, making my annual pilgrimage to Cropredy for a folk festival it is probably a very Good Thing that I remembered a drawer at work which contained a supply of clear plastic rain ponchos (intended for the possibility of rain during queuing for Harry Potter midnight launch events). I can happily report that it is perfectly possible to read through a clear plastic rain poncho so long as the daylight lasts. I was frequently distracted by some of the music (even I wouldn’t read through Brian Wilson performing the whole of Pet Sounds and I wasn’t going to miss two of Barnsley’s finest gifts, Kate Rusby and the Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican…) but I did manage to spare the time to read most of Andrew Miller’s novel set during the Napoleonic Wars, mostly in the Hebrides. Like I said – my kind of book.

9781444784695The book centres on John Lacroix, a young man who joined the army to help defeat the forces of Napoleon. He left as an officer, in all his finery, thinking war would be an adventure – he returns a broken man, virtually in rags. Although he regains his physical health he is haunted by his memories of war and its brutalities – we are not told at this point what these events are – and when a fellow officer calls to remind him of his duty to rejoin his regiment he instead flees his home. He travels northwards, from his Somerset home, via his sister’s home in Bristol and on to Glasgow. He eventually arrives on a Hebridean island, on the back of a cow, and falls in with a family of free-thinkers. A future of island life, wild landscape and haunting local music beckons but Lacroix’s past is following him in the form of Calley, an amoral and vicious corporal sent by a shadowy but powerful figure in the British Peninsular Army to kill him. The war and, in particular, a shameful incident in the village of Morales during the army’s retreat to Corunna, will not let Lacroix, or any of those near to him, escape unscathed.

This book gives us a blend of a remote, bleak but beautiful Scottish island landscape and the brutality of war. Lacroix carries this horror within him, deeply affected by his own small part in the conflict, but it also stalks him in the form of Calley (and Medina, the Spanish officer accompanying him). The fact that these horrors can touch the lives of civilians, both in Spain and hundreds of miles away in Scotland, makes us aware that no-one is immune to their effects. This is tempered by the bleak grandeur of the Scottish landscape and also the developing relationship between Lacroix and Emily, one of the group of siblings he ends up living with on the islands. War is seen as an inevitable factor of most lives but love is also possible.


The Stars Now Unclaimed – Drew Williams

In terms of science fiction I tend to prefer books which are character led, like Becky Chambers’ sublime Wayfarers series, or blur the lines between sci-fi and fantasy, like Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. What I don’t think I’ve ever read is pure space opera, complete with space battles. I’ve never read Iain M Banks, Anne Leckie or even Isaac Asimov, I have watched Star Wars/Trek but I’ve never felt the need to call myself a really committed fan of either and (hangs head in shame) I’ve never seen Firefly. There’s nothing wrong with this as a genre, it just isn’t one I particularly enjoy (no matter how many Asimov and Clarke novels Rob has to tempt me with). So I’m not sure what attracted me to Drew Williams novel – but I’m glad I gave it a try.

39345241The novel follows the work of an, at first, unnamed member of a group known as The Justified. Her job is to travel the galaxy, ravaged by something called The Pulse which has destroyed – to a greater or lesser extent depending on which planet you are on – modern machinery and computing, to find children with special powers. Space itself is unaffected but all planets, moons have been returned to a variety of states from pre-spaceflight to unable to sustain internal combustion engines. Space flight is possible – on ships operating with sophisticated artificial intelligence – but trying to land on a planet can result in all the ship’s electronics being totally ruined. The only race in the galaxy whose home planets were largely unaffected is the Pax: a race who are now trying to assimilate everyone they encounter into their sect. That sect is single-minded and has a total belief in ‘might is right’ – fascist is probably the best word to describe them.

From the moment that the Justified (later revealed to be called Jane Kamali – an ex-soldier who has been around since before the Pulse over a century earlier. I did a little cheer when her name was revealed, obviously) finds her latest gifted child, a young woman called Esa, the action comes thick and fast. Jane has to return to Sanctum, the Justified’s secret home world, with Esa but on the way manages to pick up some colleagues (including one who is running from a death penalty for treason), and a Barious (a race of robot-like beings who are, somehow, very snobbish about AI ships like the one she is now on). As they run the Pax keep following them: are they just unlucky or have the usually rather stupid Pax found out some very important information?

I didn’t mind all the fighting, bombs and blowing things to bits with extreme prejudice – I actually enjoyed the fact that the person doing most of the fighting was a female (or even two females as Barious are usually referred to as ‘she’). There was a lot more than I usually find in my choice of reading but it was mixed in with some nice characterisation. Jane, because of all the trouble she has getting Esa back to Sanctum, spends more time than usual with the girl – she’s usually a ‘pick ’em up, drop ’em off and don’t make friends’ kind of woman – and we see Esa having to learn a lot in a short time. Jane can cope with teaching her to use weapons but coping with the emotional needs (and rather black and white world view) of a teenager is more challenging. I’d complain that we don’t see that much of the girl, or her powers, which are stronger than usual, but this is the first book of a series so there is time. I’m hoping we also find out more about Jane’s past, find out where the Barious came from and whether the Pulse is coming back to do even more damage. Which means, damn it, I’m going to have get into space opera because now I need to know…