What I Read on My Holiday

I’ve been away for a little while, holidaying here:DSCN0170

When I wasn’t promenading around the coast, I was sitting in a window seat, overlooking the sea, reading books, and relaxing like a sloth on a bank holiday. I generally like to read humour when I’m on vacation to sustain my good mood. Here’s what I read:

  • Queen Camilla by Sue Townsend is a witty, often silly sequel to The Queen and I. It imagines an inept republic wherein the Queen and her family are exiled to a rundown council estate. In this installment the opposition wants to reinstate the monarchy, but will the British public go for a royal family where Camilla is Queen? Another claimant to the throne also appears, Graham the board game enthusiast, putting a nerdy spanner in the proverbial works. Delightfully, Townsend also gives character and subplot to the royals’ beloved corgis and the local dogs, planning an uprising of their own. It’s proper fun holiday read.
  • A Tiny Bit Marvellous by Dawn French was unique in that I could take or leave the plot, but the characters were pure excellence. Chapters are told in turn by Dora, a facebook-obsessed, OMG-Mum-you’re-so-embarassing kind of teenager; Oscar, her younger brother, who emulates Oscar Wilde in everything from his speech to his cravat; Mo, their mother, a child psychologist who fails to apply the theory to her own kids, and is having a bit of a mid-life moment; and once, powerfully, Husband, who had been a background character for most of the novel. Oscar is undoubtedly my favourite. French has a fabulous talent for voice and comic timing.
  • Divergent, Insurgent and Allegiant by Veronica Roth I started reading the first as it’s the book the young ‘uns chose for the library teen book club. It’s not that they need me to talk much (I’m just the moderator/biscuit provider) but I prefer to have read it so I can nod along and ask the occasional discussion point. I think it’s an excellent YA book club choice as there’s plenty to talk about: Society has been divided based on personality types – so there’s psychology, politics, nature vs nurture, government control, family or group allegiance and all sorts of themes. By the end of the first I needed to know what happened next, hence the other two. Has anyone seen the film? Worth a watch?

What do you think of my holiday reads? What do you read on holiday? Comments warmly welcomed.

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Your Next Favourite Series is…

Trainee Superhero! It’s like a funnier Ender’s Game, but in better outfits. It’s like a gender-balanced Avengers, but with more realism. It’s a superhero tale, but utterly original. My favourite thing about it is the names: The trainer’s superhero name is ‘Past Prime’!

Here’s the blurb of Book One (which seems to currently be free to you Kindle folk):

traineeI was five when the alien saucers first attacked Earth.
They tore up mountains and cities for reasons that we still don’t understand, killing millions of innocents. There was nothing our military could do to break the aliens’ shields, and we thought it was the end for Earth. The superheroes saved us, fighting back using technology stolen from the saucers. The superheroes are the thin shield that stands between humanity and Armageddon, but it’s dangerous work and many of the brave souls who fly out do not return.
I was chosen to be a superhero when I was seventeen. It’s not everything I had expected: my heroes hate me, my trainers want me dead and my team are misfits and rebels with dark pasts.
But none of that matters. I may only be a trainee superhero, but this my chance to get my revenge.
Earth needs me, so I’m going to end this year in a cape or a coffin.

Book Two is out as well and I’m waiting eagerly for the next installment. Download it and enjoy!

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Academy Street by Mary Costello

AcademyIt seems to be the in thing to compare novels to Stoner. Of the many titles I’ve seen with the ‘If you liked Stoner then you’ll love….’ tag, this is the most deserving of comparison.

It spans the life of Tess Lohan, growing up in Ireland (in present tense, like life is to a child), then as an adult emigrating to the US (in the past tense). It is written with beautiful insight and maturity, with the perfect amount of detail. Tess is quiet, even mute for a spell, and lives a sort of ordinary life. It’s hard not to love a character who reads: Tess “became herself, her most true self, in those hours among books. I am made for this, she thought.”

I didn’t love the ending, but I wanted other people to have read it so I could talk about why it didn’t feel quite right to me. It provokes discussion.

It’s one of those brilliant novels which shows how each person, however apparently unremarkable, experiences the full gamut of love and loss, tragedy and happiness.

If you’re writing a novel, don’t feel you have to write a hero, write a human.

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Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

notThis is an autobiography which reads like a novel, and an excellent one at that. Through parallel narratives of the past and present, Cumming describes his difficult childhood and the influence his father’s ire had on his adult life. The startling discoveries he makes about an ancestor through the BBC genealogy show ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ are matched with doubts and revelations in the present day.

Despite the darkness of some of the subject matter, Cumming’s voice is funny and brilliant. He is an endearing and talented writer, with a story worth telling. The central mysteries make it near-impossible to put down.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

The GuernseyWhat luck to have two writers in the family. When Mary Ann Shaffer became too unwell to make changes suggested by her publisher, her niece Annie Barrows took over. This novel of letters has many voices, but a beautiful and consistent heart.

A London journalist, Juliet, strikes up a correspondence with members of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and becomes fascinated with island life during the Nazi occupation. After being caught out after curfew, the brilliant Elizabeth invented the lie that they had been carried away at their literary society, and the fictional society quickly became fact.

Although there are deeply serious events at its centre, the novel is gorgeously funny and chooses just the right character to tell each part of the story, the luxury of the epistolary form. The narrative unfolds compellingly, with small mysteries, a parrot, and an earnest child – a few of my favourite things! The island is the perfect location; a natural, if run-down, paradise compared to post-Blitz London. The ending is utterly perfect.

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Capitalising Seasons

birtish-weatherSpring, summer, autumn (or fall) and winter generally do not need capital letters. So why do people write them with capitals so often?

Well they do take capitals as part of proper nouns, like the names of events, e.g. ‘Winter Olympics’.

Also, months have initial capital letters and they’re the other unit we regularly split the year into. My favourite summer month is June.

They need capitals at the beginning of sentences too, obviously.

Otherwise, all small case please. Thanks!

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What Happens in a Library When a Beloved Author Dies

  1. The first person to see it on the news uses the library’s internal communication system to send round a message.
  2. The person in each library who reads it spreads the message among their colleagues and everyone talks about the loss of a great human and writer.
  3. Their books are moved to prominent display areas, partly because people are about to come in and ask where they are, but mostly because they deserve to be read.
  4. Shelf checks start to come in from other libraries as readers request the books. We send them off as quickly as we can as we know the waiting lists will soon become vast.
  5. We read about their publishing history, so we can think about which to recommend to the readers who come in never having read that author before and asking where they should start.
  6. We know that this flurry of intense interest is temporary and that saddens us. But this mass-reading of their works seems to us the most perfect act of collective mourning.  They will be read; they will be remembered.

Pr

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‘We especially need imagination in science. It is not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.’ – Maria Mitchell, Astronomer

This is a chapter from the ebook ‘The Brilliant Women Collection’, posted here in honour of International Women’s Day. The whole book is available here for free.  

Maria Mitchell with her students.

Maria Mitchell with her students.

One starry night in the autumn of 1847 in Nantucket, USA, Maria Mitchell discovered a comet. She noticed through her telescope that 5 degrees above the North Star there shone a light that hadn’t been there before. She wrote down its coordinates and checked again the following night. Her father had taught her astronomy and she knew the skies well; she was confident that what she had seen was a comet. King Frederick VI of Denmark had promised a gold medal to anyone who discovered a comet through a telescope (because that’s just the sort of thing Kings did in those days). Typically, a man surfaced who claimed to have seen it first and he was awarded the medal. Thankfully, the misunderstanding was cleared up after some stern letter-writing; Maria claimed her prize a year later.

She was 29 when ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’ (now officially known as C/1847 T1) propelled her to fame; tourists came to see the woman astronomer (a shocking rarity in those days). Maria became the first female member of the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848; the fact that no other women members were admitted until 1943 shows how ahead of her time she was. Two years later she became the only female member of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences. Maria began to attend scientific meetings and became respected by many in the astronomical community. She got a job as a computer (a person that does computations, not like a human MacBook) monitoring the position of Venus.

In 1956, a rich gent by the name of General Swift employed her to escort his daughter, Prudence, on a trip around Europe. She jumped at the chance to see the stars from the other side of the world. Maria went to the Greenwich Observatory, and then travelled on without Prudence to France and Italy. When in Rome, she did as any Roman astronomer would do, and requested to see the Vatican Observatory. Again, she was stymied by foolish men who decided at first that they could not let a woman in. She finally succeeded in gaining special permission to enter, but only during the day, which rather defeated the object!

On her return to the USA, she was met with a more heartening surprise; women had collected money for the first woman astronomer and bought Maria her own telescope. She used this for many years to study sunspots. In 1865 she began work at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie in New York where she was Director of the Observatory and Professor of Astronomy. She was an enthusiastic teacher: before she became an astronomer, she had hired a room and started her own school. She was very keen on active learning and often called her students in overnight to watch a spectacular meteor shower.
maria2

She was also an early advocate of women’s rights and was active in the women’s suffrage movement. Maria believed that being born a woman should never be a disadvantage. She said, ‘Born a woman, born with the average brain of humanity, born with more than an average heart, if you are mortal what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power.’ When Maria found out that younger, less senior male astronomers were being paid more than her, she successfully negotiated for higher pay. She was friends with Elizabeth Cady Stanton who famously rewrote a version of the constitution to say ‘All men and women are created equal’, and was a famous early female trouser-wearer. Together they vociferously opposed slavery. Throughout her life, Maria taught young women that they could be anything they wanted to be and encouraged their pursuit of science, echoing what her progressive father had taught her. She is remembered for her outstanding contributions to astronomy, teaching, human rights and women’s rights. An observatory in Nantucket bears her name, as does the 30km Mitchell crater on the moon (next to Aristoteles, near the north-eastern lunar limb if you were wondering. Come on, telescopes out!).

She famously said, ‘We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire; the more we see, the more we are capable of seeing.’ The pursuit of discovery and learning more about the universe was her life’s work. She inspires me to constantly be curious about science and particularly the fascinating frontiers of space. She demonstrates that despite the awkward obstacles instituted by traditional male attitudes, great discoveries have been made by women. An inspirational teacher, she has also shown how important it is to pass on your knowledge and be a pioneer for the sake of future generations.

Read about more brilliant women here

Who inspires you? Comments Please! Likes and shares are also deeply appreciated.

Happy International Women’s Day!

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‘Mother’s Day’, ‘Mothers’ Day’ or ‘Mothers Day’?

Another holiday, another apostrophe-based conundrum. The day on which we celebrate our mothers is almost upon us here in the UK, so what should we write on our card? Indeed, which card should we buy? Is it the day that belongs to all the mothers or just our individual mother? Or is it a day for mothers but not belonging to them at all?

The OED goes with Mother’s Day which I think works. A lot of us have only one mum and it’s her day. Celebration in the singular. General usage seems to back this up.

ngramIt seems Ann and Anna Jarvis, the women who invented Mother’s Day in the USA, chose to have the apostrophe before the S too, ‘[Anna] was specific about the location of the apostrophe; it was to be a singular possessive, for each family to honour their mother, not a plural possessive commemorating all mothers in the world.’

She also thought that we should send letters, rather than cards.

I think that’s pretty conclusive, but if you’re still not happy, just go with Mothering Sunday.

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Johnny Don’t March by Timothy Hurley

johnnyI may have mentioned this novel before, but it deserves to be talked about often. My current excuse is that it now has a striking new cover by the brilliant and talented S. A. Hunt.

Johnny Don’t March confronts the consequences of coming home that affect innumerable soldiers. Nelson’s faltering attempts to return to normality after the horrors of war are told with stunning depth and realism. This pertinent, extraordinary novel is moving and gut-wrenchingly good.

Read it immediately – Amazon.

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