July reading round-up

(Leon Kaufman, 1892-1933)
(Leon Kaufman, 1892-1933)

Aren’t we having a lovely summer? Well we are here in Bristol and I hope that you are too. Not that I’ve had a lot of free time to enjoy it properly, but it’s still nice to have long sunny days. I’ve been busy helping my Mum celebrate her 60th birthday, visiting Oxford with my friend H, redecorating the living room (still a work in progress) and I even squeezed in writing an article for For Books’ Sake. Not to mention, y’know, doing my job.

Somehow, I also managed to get through several books this month (I’m halfway through two more as well), though I notice I only read three short stories. Three! This despite the New Yorker opening up its content free to all for the summer, including their wonderful short stories. I must make time to read some of them before they’re locked down to subscribers only again.

Here’s to continued summer loveliness, with added free time to enjoy it.

 

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Books read

Weyr Search by Anne McCaffrey (review here)

Parasites Like Us by Adam Johnson (review here)

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe by Romain Puértolas (review here)

Gold by Dan Rhodes (review here)

Paintwork by Tim Maughan

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (review here)

Short stories read

“How many miles to Babylon?” by Megan Arkenberg (Lightspeed Magazine, issue 20)

“Gene wars” by Paul McAuley (Lightspeed Magazine, issue 20)

“Always true to thee, in my fashion” by Nancy Kress (Lightspeed Magazine, issue 20)

Happy summer everyone!

A Who’s Who of pesticides is of concern to us all

Silent SpringSilent Spring
by Rachel Carson

This is a book that changed the world and brought hideous criticism on its author, and I’m loath to add to or ratify any of that criticism but this book took me six weeks to read and honestly it often felt like a slog. And yet I still think Carson was a good writer, or capable of good writing.

For those who don’t know the book, this now-legendary tract is a polemic against the widespread of use of pesticides such as DDT, on the grounds that they are dangerous poisons that kill far more than the target insects or fungi. Carson gathered together evidence that the supposedly safe pesticides that were widely sprayed from aeroplanes onto thousands of acres of land were killing fish, birds, pets, livestock, even people. A lot of this evidence came from scientific journals, so it’s not as though the problem was unheard of before she got interested, but she brought it to a wider audience and as a direct result, President Kennedy ordered an investigation into pesticide misuse.

“A Who’s Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals – eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

With my long history of interest in environmental issues, I am curious why this book didn’t engage me. I think there are several reasons, but they should be cast against the plain fact that this book was a bestseller and has remained in print for decades – obviously others had a better experience than me!

To begin with, I found the tone very uneven. The book starts with a long emotive intro completely devoid of facts, then launches into super technical explanations. This pattern continues, though the balance overall tends to be of more technical language interspersed with poetic sections. The references are all hidden at the back of the book so it’s near impossible to tell what’s scientific fact and what’s speculation in some places – but then elsewhere it’s perfectly clear so obviously Carson was capable of achieving that balance.

“In Greek mythology the sorceress Medea, enraged at being supplanted by a rival for the affections of her husband Jason, presented the new bride with a robe possessing magic properties. The wearer of the robe immediately suffered a violent death. This death-by-indirection now finds its counterpart in what are known as ‘systemic insecticides’. These are chemicals with extraordinary properties which are used to convert plants or animals into a sort of Medea’s robe by making them actually poisonous.”

Another issue I had was that, although we still face many similar problems, the specifics are different. I struggled with the current-day relevance of the endless facts and found myself wishing for an up-to-date equivalent. Of course, the difference is that these days that information is available to me if I go looking for it (in fact a quick scan of the petitions I’ve signed on Change.org is a good start).

On the other hand, this book also had the presumably desired effect of making me furious at the ignorance and deliberate misinformation that led to Carson writing this book – partly because I know that governments continue to side with big business against scientific advice, even when the advice is a cautious “let us do a couple of tests”.

“Soil is in part a creation of life, born of a marvellous interaction of life and non-life long aeons ago. The parent materials were gathered together as volcanoes poured them out in fiery streams, as waters running over the bare rocks of the continents wore away even the hardest granite, and as the chisels of frost and ice split and shattered the rocks. Then living things began to work their creative magic and little by little these inert materials become soil.”

Overall, I’m glad I’ve read it but can’t say it holds a candle to more recent examples of popular science – the science itself is explained clearly but isn’t made interesting and isn’t presented in a logical order (to my mind) and varied wildly in how engaging it was. Clearly this was an early example of a genre that has since been refined and practised much more.

Sections of this book were first published as a series of articles in the New Yorker.
First published 1962 by Houghton Mifflin.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge.

Everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk

GoldGold
by Dan Rhodes

I can’t remember where I saw this book recommended but I clearly did as it was on my birthday wishlist at the start of the year. Whoever recommended it, I must thank you, because this was just what I was looking for – an enjoyable, funny, page-turning read that was also emotionally engaging and well phrased.

This is a very British book, and also very much a side of Britain that I know well, so I felt immediately at home in the setting Rhodes had created, but that perhaps says as much about his skill as a writer as about my familiarity with small Welsh villages!

Miyuki has been visiting the same Welsh coastal village every January for years for her annual holiday. She rents the same cottage, eats the same terrible junk food and visits the same roster of local pubs. She knows a handful of locals by name (or nickname) and they in turn know her as the Japanese girl (though she’s not really). This year, a sudden creative urge from Miyuki threatens to make this her most eventful – and not in a good way – holiday yet.

“Over time, she began to sympathise with her interrogators. She came to the conclusion that if people wanted to talk to her about Japan then there was no reason they shouldn’t. She had grown to realise that everybody is saddled with the curse of small talk in one way or another. Veterinary assistants trying to relax in general company are tormented with interminable true stories of decrepit parrots, crippled badgers, and poodles with weeping sores; off-duty plumbers trying to wind down in pubs are pestered by fellow drinkers with extensive inquiries about float valves and stopcocks…”

Rhodes does a good job of being funny about everyday life – the boring bits, the secret bits but also the very serious bits – without ever being nasty. Tall Mr Hughes might tend to go on a bit about his latest topic of interest (on this holiday it’s alligators) but he’s clearly beloved by his drinking pals Short Mr Hughes and Mr Puw. Septic Barry might be a little over-sharing when it comes to his own business in septic tanks – and indeed he gave himself that nickname – but he’s also the local ladies’ man and Rhodes had me rooting for him where another author might have made him a comedy villain.

“Mr Edwards was a man of few words, and most of these were holy and mackerel. He could load the phrase in so many ways. Depending on his tone and his manner it could be a greeting, a valediction, an expression of surprise, of pleasure or dismay, an admonition, a congratulation, a remonstration, or even a comfort in a difficult time.”

Miyuki is a well drawn character. Quiet and reserved, she is nevertheless happy to chat to whoever sits next to her at the pub and even contribute to the Hughes Puw and Hughes pub quiz team. She likes to read a book a day on holiday so that before January is out she knows that she has averaged more than a book a month over the year. She walks the cliff tops, she drinks real ale and she takes pleasure in dropping her contact lenses on the woodburning stove at night to watch them shrivel up.

This book didn’t have me laughing out loud or rolling on the floor, and it didn’t change my life, but it was like a warm hug. Which was nice.

Published 2007 by Canongate.

Source: This was a present from my Mum.

White people don’t care where they send you

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe
by Romain Puértolas
translated from French by Sam Taylor

This book has already been a huge success in France and the publishers of the English translation are clearly hoping for similar sales figures. I hope they get them, even though I didn’t love it.

It would be wrong to say I am ambivalent about this book – it does not invite ambivalence. Rather, I both loved aspects of it and was frustrated or disappointed by others. It could well be a bit of a Marmite book.

At first glance – especially for the first few chapters – this is a very silly comedy, one that did make me laugh (or rather, snigger) a few times, though it’s not entirely to my comedic taste. Then, just as I was struggling to decide how I felt about all this slapstick silliness (it has a very Clouseau vibe) and the rather tricky main character, some serious issues get thrown into the mix (primarily human trafficking/illegal immigration) and, for me, it all picked up considerably. I know from online reviews that some people have objected to this combination of serious and silly but I actually thought that was handled fairly well – that was not my objection.

“A fakir by trade, Ajatashatru Oghash (pronounced A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh!) had decided to travel incognito for his first trip to Europe. For this occasion he had swapped his ‘uniform’, which consisted of a loincloth shaped like an enormous nappy, for a shiny grey suit and a tie rented for peanuts from Dilawar (pronounced Die, lawyer!), an old man from the village.”

It’s a difficult novel to summarise but the title does a fairly good job of the start! Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod has travelled from his home village in Rajhastan to Paris to buy a bed of nails from IKEA. He’s brought only a counterfeit €100 note, his real funds having been entirely spent on his airfare and visa, which I felt nicely set up the balancing act between his poverty and his shaky morals. When he gets trapped in a display model of a wardrobe in IKEA, it of course happens to be one that is earmarked for hasty transport (i.e. it isn’t disassembled) to England, where the fakir is discovered in a lorry with five illegal immigrants.

This neatly opens the door for an exploration – a largely scathing one – of border controls in a few different western European countries through the eyes of someone – an Indian with a legal Schengen visa – who doesn’t already know their ins and outs (such as the fact that the UK is not Schengen). One of Puértolas’ many former careers was as a French border guard and his inside knowledge shows, in a good way. He clearly has great sympathy for those who leave behind unimaginable poverty, hunger and disease in search of a better life, and great hatred for those who take advantage of such desperation. There are some tough details in this book, though they are never lingered on.

“It is not the fear of being beaten that twists our guts. No, because on this side of the Mediterranean we do not suffer beatings. It is the fear of being sent back to the country from which we have come, or, worse, being sent to a country we don’t know, because the white people don’t care where they send you.”

So I appreciated the subject matter, I found the story very readable and when the comedy got a little less broad it was more to my taste (or perhaps it even grew on me)…but I still didn’t love it. I might argue that the serious issues were handled a little too lightly and that they deserved to be explored more deeply, but then that would be a very different book. In fact, I am hopeful that the comedic tone of this novel will bring the issues surrounding human trafficking and illegal immigration to a wider conversation. (Indeed, at the hairdresser I spotted that this book is one of British Vogue magazine’s picks for their summer reads, which is a good start.)

My problem then is that the fakir’s reactions to his unlikely journey are trite, his opinions of the world are voiced clumsily and I never could decide if the book is racist. Certainly, it uses racial/national/gender stereotypes for comedic effect – for instance, the inability of any European to pronounce Indian names correctly – and up to a point that’s fine, but I often felt the line had been crossed.

I suppose that leaves me not ambivalent but also not decided.

L’extraordinaire voyage du fakir qui était resté coincé dans une armoire Ikea published 2013 by Le Dillettant.
This translation published July 2014 by Harvill Secker.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Film review: Begin Again

On Friday night, Tim and I wanted to see something light at the cinema, which for us usually means superhero action, but we decided to brave the description “rom com musical” and try Begin Again. We weren’t entirely out of our minds – writer director John Carney was behind one of our favourite films, Once, which we have watched together almost as many times as Scott Pilgrim. Almost.

It was a good decision. Begin Again is a beautiful film that charmed our socks off. “Rom com” it isn’t; I’d venture “indie musical” as an alternative description. If you’ve seen Once then you know just what to expect – in fact, the films are very similar, but this time Carney clearly had more money, though I’m willing to bet it was still small potatoes on the sliding scale of film budgets.

The story follows two people: Greta (Keira Knightley), a songwriter who moved to New York City with her musician boyfriend only to find herself single when he hit the big time; and Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a New York record producer who hasn’t produced a record in years and is estranged from his wife and daughter thanks to a drinking problem. They meet at an open mike night and decide to make a record together.

If you’re familiar with Once you’ll immediately see the similarity. There’s a great moment in this film when the characters discuss making an album in each of the world’s great cities and I immediately wondered if that is actually Carney’s plan (apparently it is). After all, Once is about making an album on a shoestring in Dublin. I think Begin Again acknowledges this similarity with a few overt references to Once, not least the scenes of James Corden busking.

Begin Again is a film about people who love music. Knightley’s voice isn’t the strongest but that wasn’t a problem for me, because it wasn’t about trying to sell her as a singing star. The key is people listening to music, creating music, really enjoying music. The human drama is relatively simple: will Dan reconnect with his daughter? will Greta be okay on her own (or rather single, as she has a good friend she lives with)? The film asks questions about record companies and music production (it is of course unashamedly on the side of the indie musician). But simplicity is the key. If you love music, New York, Keira Knightley (not so much for me, usually) and/or Mark Ruffalo (oh, yes) then I heartily recommend you check this film out.

When is a legend legend? Why is a myth a myth?

dragonriders of pern

Weyr Search
by Anne McCaffrey

After my recent introduction to Anne McCaffrey’s work, I was pleased to find this novella, an opportunity to check out the Dragonriders of Pern fantasy series that McCaffrey was best known for. Oh dear. Maybe I’m not a fantasy person?

My hackles were up from the start, as the story is introduced with a lengthy, complex prologue setting up the world of Pern, its people and its politics. Frankly, I forgot most of it almost immediately, but skimming through it again, very little of it was directly pertinent to this story and it could easily have been dropped.

The story itself opens with Lessa, who is using magic to hide in plain sight in her home, Ruath Hold, after her family, the hereditary rulers of Ruatha, were all butchered by Fax, a warmongerer from a neighbouring hold and new ruler of Ruatha. Lessa is exacting a slow revenge by preventing Ruatha from producing any profit, but as the story opens she feels a portent that danger is coming her way.

“When is a legend legend? Why is a myth a myth? How old and disused must a fact be for it to be relegated to the category: Fairy tale? And why do certain facts remain incontrovertible, while others lose their validity to assume a shabby, unstable character?”

If this had been purely Lessa’s story, I think I might have quite liked it. She’s fearless and determined, but shortsighted about how her ruination of Ruatha is affecting its people. However, this is all rushed through far too quickly as backdrop to the central story – the dragonmen have arrived at Fax’s Hold in “Search”. Their leader, F’lar, is hunting for a woman for a purpose that is only slowly spelled out, and as he and his men travel the area it becomes clear how bad a ruler Fax is. He fears dragons and holds the dragonmen in low regard – it’s never quite clear if this is in ignorance of their power or because of it.

Perhaps if I was already familiar with the setting (and McCaffrey wrote many books and stories set in Pern) then I wouldn’t have felt so bombarded with exposition, but as it was I was constantly trying to get to grips with the terminology – Weyr, between, bronze rider, Impression, Dragonqueen, etc etc – at the expense of getting absorbed into the story.

“Lessa woke, cold. Cold with more than the chill of the everlastingly clammy stone walls. Cold with the prescience of a danger greater than when, ten full Turns ago, she had run, whimpering, to hide in the watch-wher’s odorous lair.”

My guess is that this story was written to specifically illustrate the process of finding a new Weyrwoman, and to an extent details are held back so that the reader is as in the dark as Lessa. I would also hazard a guess that this wasn’t the best introduction to the world of Pern, and fans would recommend a different starting point. However, I’m not sure it’s for me either way. It felt to me that information-overload is an essential part of McCaffrey’s fantasy writing style. Simple conversations are peppered with authorial comment on the political and social connotations of word choice or tone of voice.

But that’s not my only objection. Though I believe from a little research that this is not typical of McCaffrey, in this particular book the gender stereotypes bothered me. For a book that starts and ends with a powerful woman who has a purpose not related to romance, the bulk of the story is about men talking war and politics while all the women are either servants or wives/mistresses with little or nothing to say. To a certain extent you could argue that this illustrates the kind of man that Fax is, the result of his methods of leadership, but if this isn’t typical in Pern then not enough is said or done to make that clear to the reader. I certainly came away with my idea of “swords and dragons” fantasy being rooted in medieval politics and gender roles thoroughly backed up.

“Mnementh’s many faceted eyes, on a level with F’lar’s head, fastened with disconcerting interest on the approaching party. The dragons could never understand why they generated such abject fear in common folk. At only one point in his life span would a dragon attack a human and that could be excused on the grounds of simple ignorance. F’lar could not explain to the dragon the politics behind the necessity of inspiring awe in the holders, lord and craftsmen alike. He could only observe that the fear and apprehension showing in the faces of the advancing squad which troubled Mnementh was oddly pleasing to him, F’lar.”

I’d still like to read more of McCaffrey’s SF but I’m not convinced I want to try more of her fantasy. Unless anyone can persuade me I’m being unfair and/or direct me toward a better starting point?

First published 1967 in Analog.

Source: Republished in Lightspeed Magazine, issue 20, which I have a selection of back issues of thanks to the Kickstarter project Women Destroy Science Fiction!

What language will the future speak?

Parasites Like Us

Parasites Like Us
by Adam Johnson

I found this book slow to start but by the end it had a real effect on me – by which I mean I couldn’t stop thinking about it to the extent that I had nightmares! But it is the story of an apocalyptic adventure, so that’s probably a good sign. I think. It’s also a comedy – a very dark one.

The story is narrated by Hank Hannah, an anthropologist at a small university in South Dakota, moderately successful, mostly unhappy and alternately obsessed with and completely disinterested in his own work. We learn on page one that two major events are coming – he’s going to prison and some kind of major apocalyptic event is going to wipe out most humans (along with pigs and birds, apparently). However, most of the novel is about Hank’s life leading up to those events.

“The cold was a force, a pressure you felt against your eyes, and along the frosted buildings the prison lights shone sodium and shrill, casting stiff, cement-coloured halos off the corrugated roofs. The rising moon had its say too – upon open expanses, in the branches of trees, its tincture recast the night in hues of indigo, iodine and tulle.”

Hank’s area of special interest is the Clovis – people who inhabited the Americas from 11,000 to 9000 years ago. He wrote a book contending that the Clovis were responsible for mass extinctions because they over-hunted and is now half-heartedly raking through reams of data to back this up. But one of his graduate students – Eggers – is so fascinated by the subject that he has decided to live for a year as a Clovis, using only Paleolithic technology (which seems to involve being smelly and a lot of illegal hunting). Hank’s other graduate student – Trudy – has her own contentious theory about the lack of Clovis art, and is also the subject of Hank’s inappropriate crush.

There is quite a lot of scientific exposition in this book, but I couldn’t quite figure out Johnson’s attitude toward science. None of the scientists is entirely likeable and they are pretty devil-may-care with the scientific method. With the book’s overtones of dark humour, I did wonder if Johnson was mocking the scientific establishment as a whole, or just certain aspects of it, or certain types of people within it. However, the choice of Hank’s study subject was clearly carefully chosen to have parallels with the current-day story and indeed has made me curious enough to look up the Clovis. (Incidentally, the title can be read two ways – human beings as the parasites, or that parasites like to live off humans, which may give you an idea of the intellectual humour at work here.)

“To speak of the dead is to conjure them, and it would be a crime to beckon them from their graves, to prance them around in some conga line of history before vanquishing them back to the cold, as if their lives were no more than footnotes in the tale of another.”

Hank himself was also difficult to get a handle on. He has an overinflated ego and is generally selfish, but he’s also a very smart, poetic and thoughtful man who is grieving for his stepmother. He has many unattractive traits but in the end I did sort of root for him. Because he narrates the story, and because there’s lots of stuff about hunting and survival, this feels at time quite a masculine book. But it’s saved from being too masculine or at all sexist by the character of Trudy. She’s an athletic, no-nonsense, mixed-heritage woman who rejects Hank’s advances while remaining his friend. She also shows real enthusiasm for the science, certainly more so than Hank. In fact, if anything, I might argue that the women in this book are a little too perfect, but then as it’s a first-person narrative they’re all seen via Hank and he is just the type to idolise women.

“Ten thousand years from now, when people exhumed her bones, what would they know of her life, her spirit?…Would they know of her love of plants, that she longed to see Egypt…Should I have put medicine bottles and a bedpan in her grave, so the future would understand her final struggle? Should I have chiseled out her story, start to finish, in granite, and what language will the future speak?”

Once the root of the Apocalypse becomes clear, the narrative really gets going. There are sections that, as an animal lover, I found toughgoing, but on reflection I think it’s only right that those parts were a bit grim and if anything this proves that Johnson is an animal lover.

However, what really won me over to this book was this line:

“I needed to implore of her, If you leave me, what will evoke you? I should have demanded, Tell me what movie I should watch, what tune I should sing, what book should be open on my chest when I wish to fall asleep and dream of you. Tell me, dear colleagues of tomorrow, tell me that in the future these are questions no-one’s afraid to ask.”

This book was not initially published in the UK, but after Johnson’s second novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a UK publisher picked up both this and Johnson’s collection of short stories, Emporium, which I already have waiting on my TBR. It certainly goes to prove that winning prizes does some good for authors, if it gets good-but-neglected books out there into people’s hands.

First published in the USA by Viking Penguin in 2003.
First published in the UK by Transworld in 2014.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

I like it here precisely because it is dull

The Needle's Eye

The Needle’s Eye
by Margaret Drabble

I liked this book, but it was only while discussing it at book club that I realised how much. And why. It’s certainly the kind of book that benefits from taking time to think about it afterward.

Before this was suggested for book club I had never read any Margaret Drabble and had no particular plans to read her. I think I had an idea that her books would be old-fashioned and middle-of-the-road. Well this novel is certainly in many ways of its time, but that doesn’t stop it from being a great read with fascinating psychological complexity and insight.

The story – as far as there is one – begins at a London dinner party where unhappily married Simon Camish meets Rose Vassiliou, notorious for a scandal Simon can’t quite remember. They strike up an uneasy friendship, based on her asking Simon for gradually increasing favours, many of them related to the fact her ex-husband is sueing her for custody of their three children.

“He looked dreadful tonight, did Simon…She wondered whether he knew how miserable he looked – how offensively bored…it was pointless, worrying about someone like him, he would never tell anyone anything; in a way she rather resented the obduracy of his silence. Why didn’t he forget about it one day and just complain? Everyone else did.”

For a novel where not much happens, custody battle notwithstanding, there are lots of interesting ideas about feminism, class, charity, parenting; but most of all this novel has wonderfully complex characters. Simon and Rose in particular are sometimes lovable, sometimes dull, often frustrating and frequently contradictory – very realistically. However, this isn’t entirely a realistic novel. There’s a lot of symbolism and patterns of structure, not least references to the needle’s eye of the title.

“Impossible, really, to make one’s mind up about any other human person, even one’s own children, whose whole life had unrolled before one’s eyes, whose every influence was known: they were so contradictory, so inconstant, so confusing a mass of shifting characteristics.”

For instance, Simon and Rose’s lives have followed opposite trajectories. Born to a struggling working class family, Simon is the scholarship kid made good – he’s now a lawyer married to a rich woman, Julie – and he wears his background with both pride and shame. He wants to fit in and yet he despises the people he socialises with. Until Rose. She was born to a rich country estate and hit the headlines when she gave up her inheritance to marry a man her parents disapproved of, her ex-husband Christopher. She has a strong distaste for unearned money and so she chooses to live in a shabby working class neighbourhood, counting pennies to make ends meet and taking great pleasure in getting to know her genuinely poor neighbours. Yet it’s all a game of sorts, because she could easily earn more money, or get it from Christopher or her parents, and she has a second lump of inheritance due to her. Her poverty isn’t real and her reasons for choosing that life are stretched quite far from their honourable origin.

“I like it here precisely because it is dull…Oh, I know, people think it’s not real, they think it’s nonsense for me to sit here like I do, they think I’m playing. They tell me that everyone else round here is miserable…But they don’t know because they’ve never tried it.”

Simon shares this slightly misguided belief in sticking to a principle. His legal speciality is trade unions and he steadfastly stands by the union every time, even when he can clearly see that the union is in the wrong. Like Rose, he cannot separate the theoretical black-and-white ideal from the shades of grey of real life. Similarly, he cannot see the world through anyone else’s eyes, and finds it hard to marry his assumption that everyone is as bored and depressed as he is with the evidence before him. Rose seems to be the first person who manages to at least begin to break through to him just how different people can be.

“He sat there…and wondered whose fault it was, that he should spend so much time like this, with people he really deeply disliked, talking about things that bored him rigid. It would have been better if he could have felt that the others were enjoying themselves, but from every soul there seemed to him to rise a cry of mute anguish and lonely fear.”

Inevitably Simon begins to fall in love with Rose, but this isn’t the story of a torrid affair. If anything, it is the story of a friendship that awakens two people to some, though certainly not all, of their faults.

First published 1972 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Source: Borrowed from the library.

See also: “10 reasons to love Margaret Drabble” on For Books’ Sake

The women writing pop science

Just a quick note to say that today you can read my thoughts about women writing popular science over at For Books’ Sake. Inspired by my 2014 Popular-Science Reading Challenge and the feminist focus of For Books’ Sake, I picked out my top five pop-sci books by women. Please do go take a look and leave a comment with your own favourites, or your thoughts on the ones I picked.