Given a legitimate reason to be cruel, we jump at it

Awakening by S J BoltonAwakening
by S J Bolton

I really enjoy Sharon Bolton’s thrillers, even if I am beginning to spot recurring themes and tropes. They’re easy and quick to read but still well and intelligently written.

Clara is a vet in a small village on the border of Devon and Dorset. She is more comfortable with animals than people, but her colleagues and neighbours recognise her competency and call on it whenever needed. Her background includes studying reptiles, so when snakes start turning up in people’s homes, and a man even dies from a snake bite, at first the locals and the police turn to her for help, but they soon start to suspect her instead.

“Sleep was a long time in coming. And when it did arrive it was restless, filled with dreams and shivery half-wakings. Towards dawn I had the recurring dream that I most dread. I am in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I turn I see reflections of myself. As the dream goes on, the reflections become more and more distorted. No longer is it just my face that’s scarred, but the rest of me as well.”

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I prefer to think that women are human

Are Women Human? by Dorothy L SayersAre Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society
by Dorothy L Sayers

I thought this would be an appropriate review to publish on International Women’s Day. As the title suggests, this tiny volume is a pair of pieces by Sayers on women’s rights – an address given to a women’s society in 1938, and an essay first published in 1947.

I was a little frustrated by Sayers dismissing feminists as too extreme while arguing the case for women being individuals. But in general she finds smart, astute ways to explain how men, and society in general, treat men as human individuals and women as identical members of a stereotype.

“Are women really not human, that they should be expected to toddle along all in a flock like sheep? I think that people should be allowed to drink as much wine and beer as they can afford and is good for them; Lady Astor thinks nobody should be allowed to drink anything of the sort. Where is the “woman’s point of view”? Or is one or the other of us unsexed? If the unsexed one is myself, then I am unsexed in very good company. But I prefer to think that women are human and differ in opinion like other human beings.

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She wonders how much the pain could increase

Magda by Meike Ziervogel

by Meike Ziervogel

This novella follows the final days of Magda Goebbels. Knowing the bare bones of her story, I knew where this book would go, and expected something powerful. It’s a good book, but I didn’t experience the big reaction I thought I would.

Magda Goebbels was the wife of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, and herself a prominent Party member. The couple had six children and were both very close to Hitler. In April 1945 they moved, with their children, to Hitler’s bunker in Berlin.

Ziervogel has fictionalized the facts a little, and fleshed out the tale of Magda’s last days by adding Magda’s childhood and first marriage. Which is a lot to fit into a small space, but does give some context and humanity to this woman who is widely considered a little (or a lot) less than human.

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Sunday Salon: Bristol in the snow


It’s almost gone already, but we had a couple of proper snow days here for the first time in years. For those of us who don’t need to drive and can work from home, it wasn’t especially disruptive, and was fun and beautiful. I particularly enjoyed walking around our local park and seeing it packed with people having fun sledging, building snowmen, generally enjoying the holiday atmosphere.

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He doesn’t seem to have any room in his throat or his chest or in his belly

My Name is Leon
by Kit de Waal

Wow. I tore through this book in one day. I laughed, I cried and I closed the book feeling informed, entertained and warmed inside.

Leon is eight when his little brother Jake is born. Their mother is struggling to support them on her own, but it’s okay because Leon loves his brother so much that he wants to help any way he can, and their neighbour helps when she can. Until it’s not okay anymore and social services have to step in. At which point, the difference in the two brothers’ ages and skin colour threatens to have very real consequences for their futures.

“The first day when Carol brings the baby home…she puts the baby on the floor in the living room and Leon tiptoes over…They watch the baby turn his head and open his lips. They watch the baby move one of his miniature hands and when the baby yawns they both open their mouths and yawn with him…All that day and the next day, the baby is like the television. Leon can’t stop watching him and all his baby movements.”

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Reading round-up February 2018

book fanned open
CC0 Pixabay/Cocoparisienne

Brrr. Storm Emma has well and truly hit Bristol and I am cold, even huddled on the sofa under a blanket. The snow has been falling non-stop all day and is expected to keep it up all through tomorrow as well. We’ve changed our weekend plans from going away and seeing to art to hunkering down and maybe venturing out to take some photos – making our own art.

February was a pretty good reading month for me. I finished Anna Karenina and followed that up with a few short books to give myself a refresh. And then I read one of the best books I’ve found in a few years: My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal. I loved that book so much. Eventually I will write a proper review, but you can see my initial thoughts below.

Thankfully our local chippy is still open so we have loaded up on fat and carbs to see us through the frozen night. Any excuse gladly taken!

Stay safe and warm, folks.

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Do you Zooniverse?

I’ve spent years hearing about Zooniverse, right back to its origin in the Galaxy Zoo project, but it occurred to me that outside of academia and science journalism, maybe it’s not so well known. Zooniverse is a citizen-science platform, where anyone can register and help to sort through the types of data that are easier for humans to classify than computers.

That might sound dull, but most projects involve looking at photos and ticking a box for each one. You can choose between dozens of projects to find something that you will enjoy looking at photos of. There’s Cheetahs of Central Namibia, where the photos are from a camera trap in a Namibian national park. There’s the Weddell Seal Count, where the images are from a satellite pointed at sections of ice in the Antarctic. There’s the Milky Way Project, with images from the Spitzer Space Telescope and WISE satellite observatory.

One I got a little obsessed with last year is Penguin Watch, where you click on every penguin in each photo. I love penguins and it’s reassuring to see photos of hundreds of them just getting on with their quiet little lives.

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Love…it means too much to me

Anna KareninaAnna Karenina
by Leo Tolstoy
translated from Russian by Rosamund Bartlett

Phew, I made it to the end! This is a big book and it took me a month to read. But it wasn’t a slog. I found Tolstoy’s writing much more accessible than Dostoevsky or Dickens, his contemporaries.

I had a rough idea of the story before I started this book, but hadn’t realised that the story of Anna is not the only plotline. As its famous opening line suggests, the novel follows a few interlinked families, and Anna is not the focus of the first nor the last chapter. We open in Moscow with her brother, Stepan Arkadyevich Oblonsky, who is in trouble with his wife, Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya (Dolly), after cheating on her with the nanny. Only the arrival of Anna from St Petersburg manages to calm the household down.

At the same time, Oblonsky’s close friend Konstantin Dmitrievich Levin has come to Moscow to propose to Dolly’s younger sister, Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya (Kitty), but unfortunately while he has been away at his country estate, Kitty has taken up a flirtation with Count Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky, a dandy young cavalry officer from St Petersburg. In confusion between her two suitors, she turns Levin down. But just a few days later, at a society ball, Vronsky meets Anna and their mutual attraction is immediately obvious to all.

“It was as if tears were the essential lubricant without which the machinery of mutual relations between the two sisters could not operate effectively – after the tears the sisters did not talk about what preoccupied them, but they understood each other even though they were talking about other things. Kitty understood that she had deeply wounded her poor sister with those words she had uttered in a fit of pique…but that she was forgiven. For her part, Dolly understood all that she had wanted to know.”

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Sunday Salon: Tackling the TBR

The Sunday Salon

I would like to cut down my TBR without it feeling like a chore. I currently have 133 books that I have bought and not yet read, which is massive. And I know I’m never going to get it down to 20 or 30 books, neither do I want to, but under 100 would feel more manageable, maybe even under 80.

Then again, that would mean almost a year of reading without buying new books. It seems unlikely. And new books always seem more exciting than ones that have been sitting around for a while. (See, for instance, the fact that I started reading my new copy of Anna Karenina as soon as we got back from holiday. Not that I regret finally embarking on this classic, but 822 pages of one book means not tackling four normal-sized books.)

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Holiday in Japan: food

Miso ramen

I’ve already blogged quite a bit about Japan, including my holiday highlights, but the one glaring omission from that highlights list was the food. Because food was both a highlight and – well, maybe not a lowlight, but certainly stressful on occasion.

First: the highs. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city on Earth, so it’s pretty foodie. Before we went on holiday we did a bit of research and picked out two restaurants we really wanted to eat at that allowed us to book via e-mail. (One of them specified on its website that its staff was bilingual so we were able to book in English. For the other, Tim asked a Japanese friend to help us out.) Those meals turned out to be two of the best meals of our lives (albeit two of the most expensive).

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