September reading round-up

Wow, September disappeared fast. Work was super busy and then Tim and I finally went on the holiday we’ve been looking forward to for months. Sicily is amazing. I am sure I will blog about it again when I’ve had more time to sort through the photos but for now I’ll share that it was beautiful with great weather and great food and we had plenty of time to relax and read.


This was also the month I got a Kindle and I took the radical step of taking just the Kindle on holiday with me – no physical books adding weight to the suitcase! It was a little weird for me but worked out completely fine. It’s actually quite a nice reading experience. It’s just a shame that I can’t buy books for it from my local bookshop. (Although that might change in future. I understand a number of US bookshops now sell ebooks. I’m not quite sure how it works but I hope it spreads.)

Thanks to the holiday I am very chilled but also very behind on my reviews. I will catch up on them soon. In fact, I’m scribbling some notes on my holiday reads right now!


The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (review here)

Any Other Name by Emma Newman

Saga vol. 2 by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples

May We Be Forgiven by A M Homes

Over the Front in an Aeroplane by Ralph Pulitzer (review here)

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

Short stories

“In dreams begin responsibilities” by Delmore Schwartz (Selected Shorts podcast)

“The lover of horses” by Tess Gallagher (Selected Shorts podcast)

“Down to a sunless sea” by Neil Gaiman (Guardian Books podcast)

“Everyone’s reading ‘Bastard'” by Nick Hornby (Kindle Short)

“Dr Pretorius and the lost temple” by Paul McAuley (borrowed from Tim)

“The bone cemetery” by Paul McAuley (borrowed from Tim)

“Happy trails” by Sherman Alexie (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)

“Scenes of the crime” by Cormac McCarthy (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)

“Brotherly love” by Jhumpa Lahiri (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)

“The ripper” by David Peace (New Yorker, June 10 & 17, 2013)


So how was your September? Get up to anything fun? Read anything good?

Sunday Salon: Guess it’s autumn now

The Sunday Salon

I have so many things to write about today! This should probably be four different blog posts but I am too busy/rubbish for that, so here we go.

First up, Tim went on a work trip away for two weeks, which is the longest we’ve been apart in years. Rubbish. But he’s home again now and he brought me back some very lovely book-related gifts. And an opossum finger puppet. Because, well, why not? And yes, there is a Kindle in that little pile of goodies. I haven’t really used it much yet so we’ll come back to that another time.

Presents from that Tim

Yesterday was the launch of the Books Are My Bag campaign, which aims to encourage people to go to their local bookshop. Tim and I joined in the fun by going to each of our favourite Bristol bookshops. For Tim, that would be Excelsior! Comics, for me it’s Foyles. Interestingly, the comic shop wasn’t decked out with orange bunting and Books Are My Bag posters, which made me wonder whether this is a general comic bookshop thing, that they don’t consider themselves, or don’t think other people consider them, to be bookshops? I’m a customer of both but perhaps I’m unusual in that?

Anyway, Foyles was indeed decked out with Books Are My Bag bunting and posters aplenty. And the campaign gave me a great excuse to buy a couple of books I’ve wanted for ages, plus I got a free tote bag and entry into a prize draw to win cool book stuff. I do hope the campaign drew in some new or more occasional customers and not just regulars like me.

Books are my bag

Today we went to the zoo. The temperature seems to have dropped quite a bit this week, which is fine by me (I’m not the best with hot weather) and can actually make the zoo more fun too. For one thing there’s fewer people there. But also, for every animal that curls up and hides from the cold…

Keep warm

…there’s another that loves the cooler weather and is suddenly way more active.

At play

And I do love me a penguin.

How have your weeks been? Did you join the bookshop party for Books Are My Bag yesterday?

Chris Brookmyre at Bristol Festival of Ideas

Flesh Wounds
Foyles, Bristol, 11 September

I really like Christopher Brookmyre, or Chris Brookmyre, as he’s branded these days. His books (or at least the ones I’ve read, which is quite a few) are funny, clever, insightful, satirical, sharply observed and just plain well written. But I tend to forget him when listing authors I admire (sorry, Chris) and that’s a shame because I really do. So big thanks to my friend L for asking me to go tonight’s talk with her. A quick glance at the number of his books I own gives some indication of the love I have for him.

Brookmyre books

The first Brookmyre book I read was A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away, which Tim borrowed from his friend (actually, the same friend who originally helped me to set up this website) and then told me I should read it as well because it would apparently explain to me why computer games, especially Quake, are so great. As well as being a good crime novel. And also funny. I very bravely (I’m shy, remember) put up my hand and asked Chris about this book tonight and he confirmed that he was indeed a lover of the Quake games, and he felt that those early days of online gaming made a really interesting subject for a book, though sadly he doesn’t play much these days.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Chris Brookmyre was interviewed (in front of a surprisingly small audience – I feel I should reassure Chris that he is loved, though I’m sure his sales figures attest to that) by Julian Baggini about his new book Flesh Wounds and his career to date. Baggini asked some really interesting questions about the sociological and psychological insights into crime that Brookmyre excels at. I did enjoy Brookmyre’s insistence that he couldn’t pull off the perfect crime because he’s no good at standing up to authority (which is a little surprising considering how many of his books satirise major establishments) and in real life you can’t predict what the police will do, the way you can when you’re the novelist controlling them (fair point).

Brookmyre was refreshingly down to earth and accessible. He enjoys language, especially dialect, which I think clearly shows in his work. And he’s very self aware. He says that the violence in his books is deliberately slightly cartoonish because he wants to distance the reader from the reality of that side of things, because it’s never central to the story. I hadn’t really noticed that but on reflection it’s obviously true. As he said, there’s one book in which he contrives to have a character cut off their own head!

Brookmyre is also honorary president of the Humanist Society of Scotland and apparently has written some articles on the subject, which perhaps isn’t surprising having read some of his earlier books that talk about the Catholic Church. Interestingly he said tonight that back when he wrote those books he felt frustrated and angry that there wasn’t a voice for non-believers and that there was an unquestioned respect for organised religion, but now he feels that in many ways the war has been won – religion no longer has a free pass and atheism is widely accepted. Certainly, I’d agree that huge progress has been made but I definitely wouldn’t say the fight is over, even here in the UK, let alone elsewhere in the world. If I wasn’t so uselessly shy we could probably have had a good chat about that afterwards.

As it was, I got two books signed (including an embarrassingly dog-eared and tea-stained copy of The Sacred Art of Stealing that I had to reassure him was in that state because it’s “well loved”, which it absolutely is) and, possibly more importantly, was reminded that I greatly enjoy and admire this author and should read more of his work.

This event was part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas.

A small cicatrice had been made on the memory

Heart of the Matter

The Heart of the Matter
by Graham Greene

I read this as part of Greene for Gran, a challenge run by Simon of Savidge Reads in honour of his recently departed grandmother, as Greene was her favourite author. Strictly the challenge was intended to run just for August but I got a bit behind. Sorry, Simon! Anyway, on to the book…

Initially the narrative switches between two characters in a West African country – a policeman called Scobie and an accountant called Wilson – but it gradually becomes clear that Scobie is our hero, with Wilson merely a player in his story. They are both Brits, serving time in a British colony that is at war (I wasn’t entirely clear if this was a civil war, a war with a neighbouring country, or the tail end of the Second World War).

“A vulture flapped and shifted on the iron roof and Wilson looked at Scobie…He couldn’t tell that this was one of those occasions a man never forgets: a small cicatrice had been made on the memory, a wound that would ache whenever certain things combined – the taste of gin at midday, the smell of flowers under a balcony, the clang of corrugated iron, an ugly bird flopping from perch to perch.”

Scobie doesn’t love his wife Louise, indeed they have been growing apart for years, but he does love this un-named country he has been living in for 15 years and he feels a strong sense of duty to look after Louise, who suffers from insecurity and depression, and he would do anything to protect her. Except lie. Because Scobie is so honest it’s painful. The book opens with him being denied a promotion because everyone is suspicious of him, or at least uneasy about him, because his level of honesty just cannot be believed.

“There was no reason to call…yet it was his habit to cry her name, a habit he had formed in the early days of anxiety and love…When he called her name he was crying like Canute against a tide – the tide of her melancholy and disappointment.”

Wilson, on the other hand, is clearly a liar from the start. He goes to great lengths to hide his love of poetry, but it is just that love that leads him to Louise, with whom he falls hopelessly in love. She’s simply amused by him, and that would be that were it not for an unfortunate combination of circumstances. Wilson is far from being a mere accountant. And Scobie is gradually getting tangled up with some shady Syrian businessmen and then, at the least expected moment, he meets another woman.

“He told himself: Be careful. This isn’t a climate for emotion. It’s a climate for meanness, malice, snobbery, but anything like hate or love drives a man off his head.”

Scobie is so tortured it’s almost ridiculous. His Catholicism plays an increasingly large role, highlighting how the average person can commit all kinds of sins and then renounce them at mass, while Scobie wrings his hands at the very idea. To be honest, I found Scobie deeply frustrating but he still got my empathy and I really did care about the outcome for him.

“The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths. He involved himself in what he always knew was a vain struggle to retain the lies.”

One other thing that frustrated me about this book was the undercurrent of racism. It was written in the 1940s so I know it’s unfair to hold it to today’s standards but it’s still pretty shocking to read the language used about the native people, or indeed all non-Brits. Not just the “n” word, but the way the occupiers talk to them in condescending language that’s even simpler than the natives’ pidgin English. The way the Brits all have a house boy whom they call “boy”, whether that servant is 10 or 50 years old. The way not one of the natives gets to be a fleshed out character (though at least one of the Syrians is humanised a bit; in fact he’s a very interesting man).

Something I found curious about this novel is the way that it’s divided up so much. There are three “books”, divided into parts, divided into chapters, divided into numbered sections. It’s almost like an academic textbook except that the numbers always start again at 1. There’s something oddly disconcerting about turning to page 218 and it saying “chapter 2”.

But all the frustrations and oddities aside, this is a beautifully written book that really closely examines the human heart and how people can misunderstand so horribly what each other thinks or feels. The ending is heart breaking and made me almost want to throw the book down except that the language kept me spellbound.

“He felt no jealousy, only the dreariness of a man who tries to write an important letter on a damp sheet and finds the characters blur.”

So thank you Simon for the prompt to read more Greene. I’ll certainly come back to him again. And he wrote a lot of stuff, so there’s plenty to come back to!

First published 1948 by William Heinemann.

Source: Part of a set of beautiful Penguin books I bought several years back, can’t remember where from.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

Summer reads in brief

Sneaking this in while the weather’s warm enough to pretend that it’s still summer, even if it is September. Thunderstorms are summery, right?

Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors
by Neil Gaiman

This is a truly eclectic short story collection. There are tales told in poetry, in screenplay format, in one page or 30 pages. There’s comedy, reality, fantasy, science fiction, erotica; sometimes all five at once. There were stories that stunned me (“Changes”, “Babycakes”), stories that I loved unreservedly (“The wedding present”, “The goldfish pool and other stories”) and stories that were less lovable but perhaps more surprising in their inventiveness. There were stories that felt like familiar Gaiman fare, such as the stray cat that fights every night to protect its adopted family (“The price”) or a retelling of “Snow White” from the perspective of the stepmother (“Snow, glass, apples”), but there were also stories that felt very far from my previous experience of Gaiman and it gave me new love for the man discovering his wider talents.

“Memory is the great deceiver. Perhaps there are some individuals whose memories act like tape recordings, daily records of their lives complete in every detail, but I am not one of them. My memory is a patchwork of occurrences, of discontinuous events roughly sewn together: The parts I remember, I remember precisely, whilst other sections seem to have vanished completely.”

First published 1999 by Headline.

Source: Borrowed from a friend.

A Stainless Steel Rat is Born
by Harry Harrison

A month or so ago, I had just read two very serious books indeed and badly needed some light-hearted fun, so Tim recommended this by his favourite writer. It’s a boyish adventure – it’s in the future, in space. The young main character, Jim diGriz, decides that he is going to be a master criminal. This creates many a situation where he has to survive on his wits and make use of his slightly unbelievable level of skill at everything. Only once or twice is he caught out by the naivety of youth, which makes him a tad irritating. However, the book is touching in the right moments and thrilling in the right moments. So overall, it was just what the doctor ordered.

Published 1985 by Random House.

Source: Borrowed from Tim.

A Tiny Bit Marvellous
by Dawn French

This was another fun romp, although about as different from the Stainless Steel Rat as you could get. Though I dislike the term, this is solidly chick lit: it’s funny (as you might expect from Dawn French), easy and quick to read but not particularly deep or moving. It’s the story of a nuclear family – mum, dad and two teenage children. It didn’t help that I disliked most of the characters. Mo (the mother) is cold. Dora (the daughter) is the epitome of brat. Peter/Oscar (the son) is a complete drama queen, but it’s nice that there’s a gay character where it’s not a big deal to anyone that he’s gay. And the dad, well he’s barely a character at all. A plot twist near the end is fairly unbelievable. However, before that point it’s mostly pretty believable, and readable despite some irritating turns of phrase.

Published 2010 by Penguin.

Source: Bought secondhand from a charity shop.

Who doesn’t love penguins?

Penguins on Film
Public lecture at Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol, 4 September

Tim and I (mostly Tim) have a small obsession with Antartica. When we went to Cambridge last year a visit to the Scott Polar Museum was a must, higher even than the Wren Library (only just). We have amassed a small collection of books about the continent and record every TV programme about it.

Some books about Antarctica

I can’t speak for Tim, but for me one of the attractions of Antarctica is undoubtedly penguins. (Yes yes, I know they live elsewhere in the Southern Hemisphere too, even hot places. You can blame film for the association of penguins only with the extreme cold. Apparently.) They are brilliantly characterful animals. However hard you try not to anthropomorphise, watching them waddle along is unfailingly funny. Yet in water they are hypnotically elegant.

Clearly I am not alone in this love. Tonight’s lecture “Penguins on Film” was actually part of the 8th International Penguin Conference but was open to the general public and between the two interest groups the (pretty magnificent) Great Hall at the Wills Building was crammed full. The panellists gave five short talks about some very different experiences of penguins.

emperor penguin
Image source

The main presenter was Lloyd Davis, a world authority on penguins and engaging speaker to boot. He talked about how some misconceptions and misinformation about penguins stem from and are perpetuated by film, from the earliest footage 100 years ago by Frank Hurley (comedic, unnatural behaviour) to March of the Penguins (models of family values? Penguins don’t mate for life, they pick a new partner every season and aren’t necessarily faithful to that one) and many a cartoon in-between (inaccurate habitats or mixes of species).

While this was all a lot of fun, I kinda already knew all this and there’s an extent to which the portrayal of penguins as comedic does some good in engaging public interest. As the rest of the presenters proved, you can use penguins as a starting point to talk about climate change, how science is done, filming techniques and even new robotics technology.

Elizabeth White from the BBC Natural History Unit talked about some of the challenges of filming penguins for the TV series Frozen Planet. It was fantastic to see some clips from that show on a cinema-sized screen and in retrospect it showed the real contrast between BBC footage and basically anyone else!

The tough job of following that fell to Sue Murray of the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust who showcased a video made in 1939 by amateur ornithologist Lance Richdale of an endangered penguin species that led both to the charity that works to protect the birds and also to a tourism industry that generates millions of dollars for a remote part of New Zealand. Sadly it’s a more interesting story than film, though it was fun to see Richdale’s wife weighing penguin chicks like you might a human baby.

Phil Trathan from the British Antarctic Survey spoke about how he and a colleague used satellite imagery and aerial photography to identify penguin colonies and to track changes in those colonies over the last five years. It was interesting to hear that, while initially his work led to a doubling of the estimated number of emperor penguins (because satellites can see areas basically inaccessible by land), it has also revealed the loss of whole colonies where sea ice is drastically reduced year on year as a result of climate change.

Finally, Bristol University’s very own Peter Barham and Tilo Burghardt demonstrated how the spycams embedded in penguin robots created for the TV series The Spy in the Huddle have been adapted for scientific research uses such as identifying what species of penguin it is looking at or even recognising individual African penguins by the pattern of spots on their chests. Sadly they didn’t have time to explain why this is useful (here’s a video Peter Barham made earlier), though they did find time for a fun demo of the robot’s new ability to recognise human emotions by getting a volunteer up on stage to pull faces at the spycam. No doubt this too will have extrapolations for biological research. If only there had been more than an hour!