October book reviews: special edition

Well, October has been and gone… somehow, I haven’t finished a single fiction book. In my defence, I’ve been reading a lot of PhD flavoured materials but I wouldn’t subject you to reviews of books about Q methodology factor analysis. So, this month, I’m cheating and I’m turning in other people’s homework instead.

I’m lucky to be surrounded by bibliophiles… and I’ve invited them to contribute book reviews for October’s blog post. There’s so much to enjoy in here, you probably won’t want me to resume my reviewing next month. Ho hum. Guest reviewers were asked to tell me about their most recent or favourite fiction book: title, author, genre, summary-in-one-sentence, review-in-one-sentence and rating. Quite typically of book lovers, lots of them struggled to stick to the one sentence rule!

***

Reviewer: Helen (my long-suffering wife)

Title: The Finisher

Author: David Baldacci

Format: paperback

Genre: science fiction, fantasy, young adult – although I do reject that notion! (NB she’s 45!)

Summary: a fast-paced romp where Lord of the Rings meets Eragon but with a courageous, female protagonist whose wit is as quick and fierce as her loyalty, mind and body. (I mean, she followed the rule but it’s a pretty long sentence.)

Review: suitable for all those girls and young women who are described as bossy when what people actually mean is they have great leadership skills.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The Finisher (Vega Jane) : Baldacci, David: Amazon.co.uk: Books

***

Reviewer: Suzi (my marvellous PhD study chum – find her on Twitter here: @susanl_hughes)

Title: Anxious People

Author: Fredrik Backman

Format: always paperback!

Genres: fiction, humour, psychological fiction

Summary: a botched bank robbery becomes a hostage situation in which a group of strangers are brought together, each with their own anxieties, idiosyncrasies and secrets. As the police work to safely resolve the situation, the hostages become unlikely allies and the power of humanity is exposed. (See, Suzi is a one-sentence cheater!)

Review: this has been my favourite book this year, and my favourite Backman novel to date. Revelations throughout to keep the reader alert and individual storylines that are resolved in a complex, integrated and extremely satisfying way! (Also not a sentence!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

***

Now, you don’t have to take Suzi’s word for it as Backman got a second hit from another contributor!

***

Reviewer: Sinead (my chum and fellow MA survivor – find her on Twitter here: @sineadfae)

Title: Anxious People

Author: Fredrik Backman

Format: paperback, borrowed from Lancashire Libraries (Yas queen, big up our public libraries!)

Genre: fiction

Summary: the story is centred around a bank robbery which goes wrong as the bank robber escapes accidentally stumbling into a flat viewing, resulting in a hostage situation. It’s then up to two local police officers to handle whilst they wait detectives to arrive from Stockholm. (Never tell a bibliophile she can only have one sentence, ha!)

Review: I really enjoyed the twists and turns, and it really kept me guessing. I went through a lot of emotions reading it, from laughing out loud to genuine sadness – I think that’s the sign of a good book!

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Anxious People: The No. 1 New York Times bestseller from the author of A  Man Called Ove eBook : Backman, Fredrik: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

***

Reviewer: Emma-Jayne (my fabulous Aunty)

Title: Mrs England

Author: Stacey Halls

Format: Kindle eBook

Genre: historical, drama, fiction

Summary: atmospheric, tense and easy to immerse yourself in this tale from the early 1900s. The main character is born to a working class family in Birmingham, she bettered her chances and won a scholarship to a revered Nanny/Nurse training institution. A quiet character, Nurse Ruby manages to get through the training and lands herself a job in a comfortable home in fashionable London. However, a change in circumstance sees her having to leave the relative safety of anonymous London and she ends up in rural West Yorkshire.

Review: absolutely loved this book and will be reading her other two novels in the near future. I do love a book set in days gone by where the author literally takes you there with their well written descriptions of how life would have been. For most, life is obviously harder in this time period but, in some ways, seems a whole lot simpler than life today… certainly less gadgety! This isn’t the case for Nurse Ruby May. She has issues. This novel takes you on a character discovery and you know all is not as it seems. A classic case of judging people before you know their backstory and this book has a couple of great backstories. It kept my interest throughout. I was a little frustrated with a couple of the characters on occasions but this is par for the course, I think. On the whole, a really good read. Good characters. Great atmosphere. Good outcome. Oh, I just read the review should be one sentence. LOL, oops! (Yeah, total disregard for the one sentence rule!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

Mrs England by Stacey Halls | Waterstones

***

Reviewer: Sue (my lovely Mum)

Title: The Beekeeper’s Promise

Author: Fiona Valpy

Format: paperback – I still prefer turning actual pages. Plus, weirdly, I love the smell of real books! (You can see whence my love of books originated! I’m also a book sniffer.)

Genre: historical, drama, romance

Summary: a modern woman finds new lease of life in rural France after discovering the history of another brave woman.

Review: it was exceptionally easy to read but not in the simple sense. It flowed. I loved the jumping between time periods and the comparisons between Abi (now) and Eliane (past). I loved the characters, the tension and the history. (Ok, not quite a sentence but I did trick her into joining in!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The Beekeeper's Promise eBook : Valpy, Fiona: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

***

Review: Holly and Rose (my epic cousin and her brilliant daughter – she is a founding member of my sisterhood-of-kickass-girl-cousins; you’ll hear from them all in this post…)

Title: My Little Night Light

Author: Claire Freedmand

Illustrator: Alison Edgson

Format: hardback

Genre: children’s book, bed time routine

Summary: it’s based right by the seaside, during the night. Featuring a battery powered soft-glowy light in the light house.

Review: I love it because it’s so comforting; it feels as though I’m telling Rose the story as if I’d written it. As if it were our perfect little life in a seaside village.

More from Rose’s point of view: the rhymes sound so smooth off the tongue for Rose. She properly chills out! She loves switching on the light herself. Flicking the pages over and over again and pointing to all the objects and animals – she can almost sound out words after reading it so much. Even words like rock pool. She particularly loves the last page because she thinks it’s her in the bed! Every time we reach the end of the story, I say “ahhh, na-night baby Rose” and point to her in the bed. (Seriously, Rose is perfect.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

***

Reviewer: Charlotte (also a member of the sisterhood-of-kickass-girl-cousins and correctly thinks animals are better than humans – find her on Twitter here: @ch4rmander94)

Title: Right Behind Her

Author: Melina Leigh

Format: e-reader

Genre: crime, thriller

Summary: book 4 in the series, Sheriff Bree Taggert is facing more painful memories as bodies are discovered buried in the yard of her childhood home, and the pressure is on to track down a brutal killer who has been free to roam her hometown for thirty years. (Oooo, she nailed the one sentence rule!)

Review: I am a huge fan of crime thrillers, and the Bree Taggert series provides just the right balance of mystery, drama, and just a pinch of steamy romance to keep readers engrossed in its pages throughout; if you want a story to keep you on the edge of your seat, this instalment will do just that! (Canny use of a semi-colon to stick to the one sentence, there.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Right Behind Her (Bree Taggert Book 4) eBook : Leigh, Melinda:  Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

***

Reviewer: Sallie (my awesome Auntyalso, I bet my aunties compare how I’ve introduced them!)

Title: The Midnight Library (I’m also a big fan – see my review here).

Author: Matt Haig

Format: Kindle eBook

Genre: Fantasy, philosophy, fiction

Summary: desperate girl feeling unwanted and unnecessary commits suicide and goes to the Midnight Library where she can experience all the lives she feels she could’ve lived.

Review: I thoroughly enjoyed the book, not my usual genre but it was very thought provoking, we’re all meant to live the life we live. (I’m saying nothing about which aunty followed the rules and which did not – hehe.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The Midnight Library: Matt Haig: Amazon.co.uk: Haig, Matt: 9781786892706:  Books

***

Reviewer: Eugenia (my chum and also a fellow MA survivor – find her on Twitter here: @TheMariugenia)

Title: Force of Nature

Author: Jane Harper

Format: hardback – borrowed from the public library! (Yas queen, more public library support!)

Genre: mystery, thriller, crime

Summary: “Five women pick up their backpacks and start walking along a muddy track. Only four come out on the other side” 😲😲😲

Review: I discovered Jane Harper a few months ago, when my local public library’s catalogue suggested her to me after reading a book from Riley Sager, I guess because of their similar writing style. Let me tell you that this was a one-way ride… After reading Jane Harper’s debut novel “The Dry” (which is absolutely brilliant and stunning – highly recommend it as well!), I couldn’t wait to immediately read the second book of her Aaron Falk series, “Force of Nature”as well. Just like with “The Dry”, Jane Harper haunts you with her incredibly addictive writing style, leading you to a non-stop and totally-worth-it one-seating read. The author has an impeccable way of narrating the story in short chapters that immediately haunts you and make you want to continue reading more and more. Unlike other crime and mystery fiction novels, Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series novels are not predictable at all and at the same time they are both perfectly written in a way that makes them both unique and brilliantly narrated so their outcome is never what you had expected to be so far. “Force of Nature” is a fine masterpiece for mystery, thriller and crime reading lovers who although are passionate for these genres, can’t deal with very violent and explicitly descriptive books in order to avoid posterior nightmares, like me 😂🤦‍♀️. If you are looking forward to reading an addictive, shocking, terrifying and with incredible plot twists book, search no more: this is a perfect choice for you. (Yup, another bibliophile… we had no chance of her sticking to the one sentence rule either!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Force of Nature by Jane Harper | Waterstones

***

Reviewer: Nat (also Natty or NATALIEEEEEEEEEE – youngest member of the sisterhood-of kickass-girl-cousins, who might not yet have forgiven me for convincing her to do an MA)

Title: The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak

Format: paperback

Genre: historical, young adult / coming of age, fiction

Summary: narrated by Death, this book follows the tale of a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany, 1939. Tale of childhood within the destructive environment of a world war. (That’s two sentences, Nat!)

Review: the last book I read, but not my first read of The Book Thief. It is well written, an absolute treasure. Probably one of my all time favourite books. (Nobody tell Nat that it’s been on my to-be-read shelf for ten years.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

The book thief: Amazon.co.uk: Markus Zusak: 9780552773898: Books

***

Reviewer: Megan (I suggested I introduce Megan as my cousin’s cool friend but Nat said I should say “my cool cousin’s less cool friend”… just so you know, Megan!)

Title: Circe

Author: Madeline Miller

Format: paperback

Genre: fantasy, historical, Greek mythology

Summary: a retelling of the mythical story of Circe, daughter to the Greek god Helios, who after discovering her powers of sorcery is banished to an island where over the centuries she meets a number of famous faces from Greek legend. (I mean, it is a single sentence but it’s even longer than Helen’s!)

Review: this book is full of so many quotable lines thanks to Miller’s beautiful writing style and the complex characters brilliantly bring the world of myth to life. (Nailed it, Megan.)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Madeline Miller - Circe

***

Reviewer: Child 1 (eldest child of my spiffing study chum – go follow her on Twitter here: @PhDMumLife)

Title: Room on the Broom

Author: Julia Donaldson

Illustrator: Axel Scheffler

Format: board book

Genre: children’s book

Summary by Child 1: witch and cat! And loses hat! Yes! Cries the witch. Dragon roar! Scary and loud! Hee hee. (Sorry but he’s too cute to penalise for not sticking to the one sentence rule and he was still more succinct than some!)

Review translated by Mum: he loves the book. He loves the film version. He’s entranced by it, he recites whole passages word for word. But I cannot get a review type answer out of him! (When Mum tried earlier in the day, she sent me a video… as soon as she mentioned the book, Child 1 commented “it’s not bed time?” Love it!)

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Room on the Broom : Donaldson, Julia, Scheffler, Axel: Amazon.co.uk: Books

***

Reviewer: Child 2 (youngest child of small-human-wrangler-extraordinaire @PhDMumLife!)

Title: Mr Magnolia (or ‘Nolia as Child 2 calls it)

Author: Quentin Blake

Illustrator: Quentin Blake

Format: hardback

Genre: children’s book

Summary by Child 2: ‘Nolia! Boot! Owls! Hoo-hoo. Owls. Boot. Look! Boot!

Summary translation by Mum: delightful rhyming story about Mr Magnolia, who only has one boot. (Mum nailed the one sentence rule.)

Review: Mum to Child 2 – “do you like Mr Magnolia?” Child 2 to Mum (excited) – “‘Nolia! Yesss!”

Rating: 🦉🦉🦉🦉🦉 (that’s five owl-hoots)

Mister Magnolia : Blake, Quentin, Blake, Quentin: Amazon.co.uk: Books

***

September book reviews

Yes, yes, I’m late. But I wanted to finish the new Thursday Murder Club before I posted. And I had to climb into the loft to turn on the heating, now that I’ve won that argument.

Three strong books this last month, well suited to the season of pumpkin spiced lattes, scarves and Ugg boots.

***

The Harm Tree by Rose Edwards

The Harm Tree : Edwards, Rose, Tomic, Tomislav: Amazon.co.uk: Books
ARC received from Netgalley. Available on Kindle and as a paperback.

I think in many ways, the novel is technically flawed and could be improved. There were some things I wanted Edwards to expand on and others I wanted her to cut back. But I don’t want to focus on that; I’d rather talk about the feeling it created, because Edwards has got so much right in her debut novel.

“Under my ribs, the hook of my homesickness tugs me north. I wonder if this is what the gulls feel, flying back to their nests in the spring.”

Rose Edwards

There’s something utterly immersive about the way Edwards wields language. Some of her phrases don’t just strike a chord, they perform an entire score that’s simultaneously familiar and new. There’s a great deal I really admired about Edwards’ novel: the Norse-inspired world is richly built, the characters have distinct voices, Edwards doesn’t patronise her YA audience and the female characters defy vapid, fantasy tropes.

I’ll definitely be reading future books from this author.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

***

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

The Guest List: A Reese's Book Club Pick, the biggest crime thriller of  2020 from the number one best selling author of The Hunting Party: The  Biggest ... No.1 Bestselling Author of
Available now in paperback

I worked out all but one of the twists and whodunnits in Foley’s novel. As you can see on the front cover, Horowitz says it’s a ‘very clever’ book and my extremely smart chum, Suzi (go follow her on Twitter), says she didn’t figure it all out and enjoyed “the genuine surprise.” So I’m thinking I should become a mastermind criminal, detective or crime writer… because I’m rarely surprised by crime novels, TV shows or movies. Is there something wrong with me?! Anyway, my smugness didn’t detract from my overall enjoyment of the book.

I think Foley might have done something quite clever with The Guest List and I hope it was deliberate. For the first half of the book, I didn’t like a single character. This is usually a complete turn off for me because it means I’m not invested in what happens to them and it’s the main cause for me to give up on a book. But, somehow, Foley balanced this with a sufficiently interesting plot and setting that meant I persevered. Towards the end of the novel, there were a few women I’d warmed to but the men could literally all get in the sea – they embodied privilege, toxic masculinity and drunk, obnoxious, manchild behaviour.

Unlike some other reviews I’ve looked at, I liked the gothic, gloomy setting; it was a useful plot point (isolating a group of people of a stormy island), as well as matching the overall secret-death-revenge vibe . Although the clues were heavy handed and I’d solved it long before the end, I rather liked the slowness of the story structure, told by multiple people.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍 (I much preferred it to The Dinner Guest)

***

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman

The Man Who Died Twice by Richard Osman: 9781984880994 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books
Listened via Audible. Also available in hardback and Kindle

The plot is a little broader than the first book, including some spy stuff, ex-husbands, diamonds, the mafia, drugs and therapy. And a sprinkling of romance but not so much that it put me off.

I understand that it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s something quintessentially British about Osman’s series (we can call it a series now that Penguin is offering a pre-order of the third book) which really appeals to me. It feels like a perfect, autumn Sunday: a walk in the woods with the dogs kicking up leaves, a roast dinner, a board game, a pair of fluffy socks, a hot chocolate (or mulled cider) and a re-run of David Suchet’s Poirot on ITV. It’s familiar and cosy whilst offering sufficient twists to keep my interest piqued.

The characters are the biggest draw, I think. The second instalment provides more depth to their backgrounds and the multiple moral dilemmas offer greater insight into their personalities. I aspire to be even a little like Elizabeth when I pass through middle age into my golden years… Of course I’d like to be like Joy but I don’t think I’m kind enough!

It’s a big, fat yes from me. I really worried that offering up a sequel so quickly would mean Osman fell into the trap of producing formulaic stories but this couldn’t be further from the reality. I listened to the book via Audible and Lesley Manville is a stellar narrator. There’s also a bonus conversation between Manville and Osman at the end of the book, which I enjoyed.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ (because it delivered exactly what it promised)

When did it* sneak up on us?

I was stood in our bathroom last week and noted our array of dental hygiene products. When we were first dating, nearly 21 years ago, you’d find one toothpaste and two toothbrushes. That’s it. Now, we have hers and hers toothpastes for different oral needs, medicated mouthwash, regular mouthwash, two types of toothbrushes (that’s each!), floss, floss harps, tooth picks… and it struck me that this is a sign of being *middle aged, isn’t it?

To be fair, if you get the film reference, you’re also old…

My brain definitely liked that and has since been in overdrive during my insomnia, gifting me a plethora of other ways in which we’re clearly ageing. I’m pretty sure this isn’t an exhaustive list but maybe documenting it will bore my brain into a new hobby? Some are unique to me, others are shared experiences with my wife.

  • We don’t want to go out after 4 o’clock for errands – very specifically because we don’t want to lose our space out the front. The car parking wars are real.
  • When we like a pair of shoes or item of clothing, we buy multiple in different colours or patterns. Job done.
  • I’m able to hear my skeleton when I get out of bed or get up from a chair or bend over to tie my laces. Like a percussion band with no rhythm.
  • We’re very happy (nay, delirious) when plans fall through and we get to stay home. Despite having stayed home pretty much since March 2020.
If Anna Kendrick says it’s ok…
  • I don’t recognise a lot of music in the charts (my wife doesn’t recognise any of it).
  • I like the idea of a lie-in but my bladder / back / to do list mean I never get to laze about.
  • We had an existential crisis when we realised the gap between 1980 and 2021 is the same as 1939 and 1980 (so we shared it with friends to ruin their brains, too).
  • Our zombie apocalypse plan now involves less running or fighting and more hiding and recruiting clever friends with useful skill sets.
  • Life admin used to mean organising social events, maybe doing the food shopping and chucking some washing on… Now it means booking some sort of medical or vet appointment, updating some kind of insurance policy or looking at pensions.
  • We like some foods which actively dislike us in return: I love onion but it gives me heartburn; I like corn on the cob but it exits my system in under an hour; we both like braised meat but it gets stuck in our teeth; my wife loves custard but her stomach rumbles like a pair of trainers in the washing machine on a fast spin.
Food regrets
  • I have to turn the radio or music down in the car so I can see better. Especially if it’s dark and raining.
  • We both agree that 9 o’clock in the evening is too late to start a movie.
  • Gaming now means I’m doing a crossword or convincing my wife to play a board game.
  • We always do the dishes before bed because neither of us can relax if there’s mess.
  • I need a specific configuration of pillows for bed or I will wake up temporarily broken.
This could be actual footage
  • I shamelessly wear Crocs and I’ve even left the house without changing them.
  • We used to have a single box of painkillers in the bathroom. Then we ended up with a toiletries bag of various meds. Then a shelf. Now, we have a whole cabinet dedicated to our various pharmaceutical needs and a second cabinet ringfenced for the dogs. Not to mention the fact that we have small stashes of our go-to needs (asthma, migraines, heartburn) in the car glovebox and every single handbag. Just in case.
  • We’ll pop to the garden centre for something to do. And we don’t even bring down the average age, anymore.

Seriously, we were these wee creatures just two minutes ago?!

August book reviews

So, September’s here already and instead of thrusting us straight into autumn/fall (my favourite season), she seems to have brought a late summer with her. August was a skinny month for reading… just two books. But one of them was an absolute cracker. In fact, Fadugba’s novel has left me with the kind of book hangover that’s made it hard to start something new.

***

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder by T.A. Willberg

Marion Lane and the Midnight Murder: An Inquirers Mystery: Amazon.co.uk:  Willberg, T.A.: 9781409196631: Books
I read it in hardback and listened via Audible.

I chose this as one of my birthday books, using a very generous voucher from some chums.

The book explores Miss Brickett’s Investigations and Inquiries – a (literally) underground detective agency in 1950s London. When one of their own is killed on their premises, it sets in motion a number of interrelated investigations and we follow Marion Lane, a first year apprentice, as she tries to solve the multiple whodunnits.

Tonally, it felt like an Agatha Christie; if Poirot or Miss Marple had pitched up, they’d have been in keeping with the setting, characters and plot. One reason I chose the book was that Stuart Turton reviewed it so highly. I am a fan of his book, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, and thought his endorsement might mean Marion Lane was similar. Sadly, Turton’s novel was far more sophisticated and clever than Willberg’s novel. For instance, I wasn’t sure if Marion Lane was aimed at an older YA audience or adults. Also, the plot wasn’t twisty enough for a whodunnit, in my opinion. I guessed all of the outcomes – and whilst I enjoyed the sense of smugness that gifted me, I do prefer to be surprised by some elements in a crime novel.

It felt like the kind of book you’d enjoy reading on a wintery Sunday, in front of the fire, with a blanket, cake and tea. Comfortable and enjoyable but not exhilarating or challenging.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍

***

The Upper World by Femi Fadugba

The Upper World
I listened via Audible – it’s also available in paperback.

In an interview (you can read here), Fadugba claims that physics = maths + metaphors. I love this. I love love love this. And it’s exactly how he tackles the physics and time travelling elements in The Upper World.

As with every good book, I don’t want to give away too much of the plot for fear of ruining it. Essentially, Fadugba introduces two characters in two different timelines. In the present, we meet Esso, a young boy living in Peckham and trying to survive school, friendships, family and stereotypes. His mother gifts Esso a notebook full of letters and scribblings from his absent father, which explain the Upper World, physics, space and time. Once Esso begins reading it, he starts to experience unfathomable things. In the second timeline, fifteen years in the future, Rhia is a struggling football star from Peckham. She lives with a foster family and has unanswered questions about her past and her mother.

Fadugba takes us on a real and metaphysical journey as Esso and Rhia’s timelines collide – the result being the Upper World. At different points, the novel made me feel really clever (I’m getting it, I’m getting it) and at others, I felt really dim (I’m just going to reread that last section 389656 times). In hindsight (is that a metaphysical joke?), I wish I’d read a printed version of the book instead of listening to it on Audible. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Moutchi and Weruche Opia were exemplary narrators, but I think I needed to see some of the more complex ideas as ink on paper. That is literally my only criticism and, really, it’s a criticism of my own choices!

The Upper World ticks every box for me: interesting science fiction, very well developed characters, compelling premise, a plot that rattles along at a brisk pace, satisfying conclusion coupled with the hope of future books, a lack of unnecessary romance, and a strong level of realism. Whilst the present timeline is evidently set many years from now, given the level of tech the characters access, much of it is familiar. The depiction of life in London for young Black people, the inner city school system and the lives of people in the care system are all well-handled and not glazed over.

I’d like to know more about Esso’s father and the village of his heritage, given Fadugba clearly hints there is an acceptance of the existence of the Upper World there. But that’s a wish-list not a criticism! It’s also exciting that Netflix have picked up the rights for a film adaptation. Sometimes that makes me nervous because I worry they’ll ruin the book but I’m keen because the producers have been working with Fadugba.

I really can’t recommend this book strongly enough.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

My patronus…

Actually, this is about my patronuses (Potter world plural spelling) or patroni (sounds better?).

A bit of a departure from my normal blogs and I very nearly didn’t write or publish this because it’s about my weight, which seems personal and unrelated to my professional / PhD life. But (as any plus sized person will tell you) if you are carrying extra weight, it consumes* most of your waking day.

Here are some examples. First, I generally avoid public engagements with people I don’t know because I hate being judged and, let me tell you, as a fat person, I know full well when I’m being judged. In this regard, the pandemic-work-from-home-forever-and-ever has suited me because all my PhD related social interactions (conferences / public speaking / group studying) have been via video conferencing. Ta da, folks can only see me from the shoulders upwards. It took some doing and mental preparation to bring myself to meet new PhD friends in person, once it was safe to do so, without being emotionally wobbly*.

Second, whilst I hate exercising, I know it’s obviously good for me and I try to do it a few times a week. That can be dog walking or more recent strength and conditioning work, thanks to my friend and PT (James Dewar-Haggart). But as I’m carrying so much excess weight, even a 30 minute stretch of exercise will leave me shattered, potentially lead to a migraine, make me sweat so much I have to wash my hair (long-haired ladies will feel my pain). This means, on days where I exercise, I don’t start work until around noon and I’m so tired that I’m less productive. When you’re behind in your writing (hahahaha – when isn’t a PhD researcher behind in their writing?!) or have a fast approaching deadline, it’s hard to avoid pulling an 18 hour study session at the desk and delay exercising for another day.

The final example is about confidence. Being fat knocks your confidence – it’s the first thing people see about you. Not your skills, humour, loyalty, dedication, work ethic. Intersectionally, I’ve had many more unpleasant experiences as an adult because I’m overweight than I have because I’m queer. That could be a whole blog in its own right. I guess my queerness can be invisible but my fatness is always present. It makes me anxious in most settings. It’s tricky to explain without also sounding arrogant… but I am an excellent teacher. I spent years actively developing myself as a teacher. Therefore, in teaching settings, my confidence in my role outweighs* my lack of confidence about my body, so I can get on with the job. In this new academic setting, I have absolutely no confidence in my skills as a PhD researcher – most of us don’t because we’ve all slurped from the Imposter Syndrome water cooler. It means that I’m crippled by a lack of confidence in and about my whole being.

Without a long explanation of my personal, medical history… my extra weight also doesn’t make a lot of sense and has stumped a number of doctors and consultants. Suffice to say, it is not the result of junk food (despite what judgy people assume), poor diet, alcohol, laziness or recreational drugs. Recently, I’ve been fortunate to be referred to a specialist team who’ll be investigating all things weight-related to help me get to the bottom* of it. Alongside getting on with the PhD, I’m now handling my own data every day; it takes up a lot of time, ceases all spontaneity and makes me obsessive but it’s necessary. I’m also trying more intuitive eating and to change my brain’s relationship with food – inspired by some folks on TikTok (I know, it’s not just for comedy skits, it turns out).

* deliberate puns, it’s ok to laugh.

Ok, why patronuses / patroni? Well, my weight actually surprises those I’ve been brave enough to tell. I don’t know if they’re being polite or if I move/look/seem like a lighter person? It might even be because since the pandemic started, I’ve refused to wear baggy, dark clothes everyday and branched out into all things colourful? Maybe confidence (no matter the fact it’s a pretence) makes me seem a little lighter? I am not going to publish my actual weight but I did use Google to find out which animals weigh the same as me… and I was struck by how much I had in common with some of them. Thus, let me introduce you to my patronuses/patroni.

Andean Bear (males)

Spectacled-Bear-Andean-Bears
  • Also called Bespectacled Bear – I wear glasses.
  • Active both in the day and night – PhD studying happens 24/7.
  • Retreats from humans – say no more.
  • Pretty solitary but not territorial – yup.
  • Has massive mandibular muscles compared to its body size – if my wife is reading this, shhhhh! Don’t say it!

Tiger

Bengal-tiger-400-pounds
  • Tigers prefer to eat the prey they kill rather than carrion (which they’ll resort to in dire times) – I’m the same. I have an immense dislike of leftovers and I hate it when you eat out and the food is of a poorer quality than you could achieve at home.
  • They’re pretty nocturnal but will get on with things during the day if necessary – I’m an insomniac and will spend a good deal of the night doing things like the Tesco order, queuing up emails or writing to-do lists.
  • Although big, they’re fast but only over short distances – me, too! I move quickly and, surprisingly, quietly. Useful skills for a teacher and librarian.

Ostrich

How did evolution ever lead ostriches to hide their head in the sand when  an enemy approaches? - Quora
  • When facing a problem, ostriches don’t bury their heads (this is a myth) but they do run away / hide / lie flat – avoiding problems? Sounds familiar.
  • If directly threatened and they can’t run or hide, they’ll kick – metaphorically, I’m the same. If pushed, I will eventually kick back.
  • Teeny-tiny heads in relation to big, round bodies – sigh.

Common Dolphin

Common dolphin - Wikipedia
  • They’re really bloody clever – I’d like to think I’m smart, too.
  • But they also have massive noses (beaks) – mine is certainly a prominent feature of my face.
  • They’ve got lots of nicknames (Saddleback dolphin, White-bellied porpoise, Cross-cross dolphin, Hourglass dolphin) – I also have a fair number. Jo, Joanna, Joanna-Louise (if I’m in trouble), Jonarnia (I think my aunties started this one), Toe (thank you, brother), MC-Kenna (students over the years).
  • They don’t like it too hot and prefer a surface temperature around 10 to 28°C – I definitely can’t function when it’s too hot.
  • A group of dolphins is called a school – nuff said.

Donkey

  • If I don’t comment, one of my friends will… they’re also called asses.
  • They’re loud and can be heard from over 3km away – well, this is writing itself, isn’t it?
  • Apparently, they’re notoriously stubborn – in their case, it’s associated with self-preservation and, in my case, it’s probably my fierce independence.
  • Once you’ve earned their confidence, they can be quite biddable – yes, yes, I’m the same. Once I’ve let you into my inner-sanctum, I’m very loyal.

July book reviews

How have we already passed the halfway mark of 2021? It wasn’t a very book heavy month in the Wonky Librarian household… the manchild was home from university, my wife was ill and I was back to the PhD after a leave of absence for surgery. July seems to have sped by with only a tiny handful of books.

***

Rainbow Grey by Laura Ellen Anderson

Paperback, available now

I’m pretty sure I first saw this shared on Twitter and was smitten with the very camp front cover so pre-ordered it.

Set in the magical Weatherlands, Ray Grey doesn’t have the same weather-based magical powers as her friends and family, who are responsible for the weather systems on Earth. Ray does have Nim, a cloud cat who frequently explodes, as well as a penchant for visiting the library. In essence, she ends up on an adventure to prove that she’s brave after being teased by some bullies.

It has everything you want in a child’s book: adventure, imagination, magic, moral questions, fabulous illustrations, friendship and a few twists. The humour is sophisticated in its range; there’s slapstick silliness (exploding, farting, cloud cat), word puns and sufficient tongue-in-cheek moments to keep the adults chuckling. In that regard, it reminds me of How to train your dragon by Cressida Cowell.

The relationships were well developed, for instance parents who worried about her and applied boundaries and consequences without being unnecessarily cruel. At no point was Ray pitted against her parents, something I often find in children’s books.

It’s written for 8 – 10 year olds but I’d argue younger readers would love it as a shared or bedtime read.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

***

Beyond the Black Door by A. M. Strickland

42642042. sy475
Hardback, available now

Hmmmm. I really wanted to love this but I was left a little dissatisfied.

Kamai is a soul walker as she can pop into your soul whilst you’re asleep. She doesn’t learn how to fully hone this skill because her mother – her teacher – is murdered. Her mother has always told Kamai that she doesn’t have a soul like other people. No matter which soul Kamai visits, a black door appears, thrumming in the background; her mother has forbidden her to touch it or open it.

So, naturally, Kamai does both.

I really enjoyed the soul walking elements, socio-political constructs, friendships, familial relationships and setting. I was less enamoured with the romantic relationships and developments. Strickland explores a range of identities including gender queer, biromantics and asexual romantics – this is interesting and it’s not for this reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. I think I am becoming ambivalent towards stories where the romantic relationships are integral to the plot or where they are the plot. Kamai’s self-discovery is great and I enjoyed reading it. What I disliked was the notion that she was falling for the bad guy (even though there are complexities with the situation) and that it was her process of working through this that brought about the plot resolution. Also, the relationship felt a little like grooming and definitely a lot like manipulation. Strickland gave with one hand with brilliant queer representation and then took away with the other, through an attempt at dark romance that simply reinforced tired tropes of abuse and misunderstood men. (Nora Martinez’s review on Goodreads makes these points much clearer than I can).

Probably another criticism is something I’ve seen in another review and it resonated with me. There is obvious peril and danger in order that Kamai can be the hero. However, whilst the world around Kamai is well depicted, we’re not privy to the wider world. This means the threat feels less threatening and the doom feels less doomy because we can’t fully appreciate the world or lives at risk.

Rating: ❤️❤️🤍🤍🤍

***

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

41081373. sy475
Hardback and audiobook, available now

I am able to appreciate and value a book without enjoying it, per se, and Girl, Woman, Other falls into this category. For instance, I think it’s a better work than its Booker Prize co-winner, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Evaristo should have won, hands down, but I still enjoyed Atwood’s book more.

Girl, Woman, Other is a very clever multi-narrator story exploring British women of different backgrounds, classes, ages and identities. The way Evaristo interweaves the lives is incredibly satisfying and she delves into meaty issues: parenting, love, class, privilege, inequality, feminism, oppression, intersectionality, family.

I have a thought and I’m worried I’m going to mishandle it with words, but here it goes… Despite the deliberately relaxed approach to punctuation and the centring of different voices, Evaristo’s book feels less like a novel and more like journalism, an academic publication or a Ted Talk. It teaches and highlights and explores, using the characters as a vehicle for the reader to understand big issues without reducing them to clichés. For this reason, whilst the characters don’t feel like stereotypes, they do sometimes sound unrealistic or as though they’re lecturing. The dialogue that follows is uttered by a middle-aged, drunk, high lesbian:

We should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings how can we argue with that?

Now, I might sound like that sober when writing an essay but even when I’m trying to be pompous, I don’t often speak like that aloud. I guess it feels like Evaristo’s manifesto – and her ideology chimes with mine a great deal.

Here’s a terrible analogy. I love roast parsnips and I love roast potatoes. Yum. What I don’t like is thinking that I’m spearing the final roast potato, which I deliberately saved until last, only to discover it’s a parsnip. I’ll still eat it and appreciate it but, all the while, I’ll be wishing it was a potato. That’s Girl, Woman, Other for me. If I’d known it was a parsnip (interesting book) before eating it, I’d have been more satisfied than I was when I hoped it was a potato (fictional novel)…

Ah well, it made sense to me and it’s lunchtime so I’m hungry.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

June book reviews

For once, no hot-off-the-press or yet-to-be-published books… these are all readily available, if you’re so inclined.

***

The Dinner Guest by B P Walter

The Dinner Guest by B P Walter | Waterstones
Listened via Audible when creating our garage bar

I picked this up because Audible pushed it as a recommendation and because I fancied a break from fantasy. The performances by Katy Sobey and Marston York were great; I would definitely listen to more books read by them. It’s tricky to review a crime novel without giving too much away so I’ll be sketchy and vague. The opening tells us that four people were at dinner and one is murdered – the rest of the book flits back and forth between the past and the present as we discover how and why this happened.

A whodunnit needs to be balanced between the plausible and the not-too-easily guessable. I want twisty turns but I don’t want them to be lazily convenient or predictable. I want to be shocked but satisfied. The Dinner Guest more or less achieved this: I had figured out whodunnit pretty early on but not the motive. Frankly, that’s probably because the motive is a little questionable and stretched.

Walter has cleverly created superficially likeable protagonists in a dual narrative style whilst hinting enough that you inherently know you can’t trust them. In addition to the overarching crime, Walter touches on class, privilege, family structures, LGBT+ life, parenting. There’s definitely enough substance to keep you satisfied.

I didn’t enjoy the last chapter. I’ve seen other reviewers call it over-indulgent which I think is a great description. The penultimate chapter, in contrast, was sinister and menacingly threatening; ending it there would have been perfect. The last chapter was somewhat too obvious and overt – so it diminished the impact.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍

***

Identity Crisis by Ben Elton

Identity Crisis by Ben Elton
Paperback – already loaned to someone else

This was recommended to me by a chum. It’s my second crime novel of the month, in which Elton explores identity politics. Set a little in the future, Detective Mick Matlock investigates a series of murders whilst trying to tiptoe safely around an ever-changing identity landscape, which he just doesn’t understand. The UK is a few years into its post-Brexit position and another referendum is on the horizon – this time England wants independence from the union.

I took the paperback with me on the day I had to have surgery because I knew I’d be waiting around. I raced through the first 120 pages as I waited for my turn to be knocked out. Then, as I was poorly for ages, I didn’t pick it up again for a few weeks but, once I did, I raced through the rest of it in two sittings. The racing wasn’t necessarily a reflection of pleasure so much as a) wanting to finish it so I could pick up my next book and b) not quitting so I could confirm my suspicions about whodunnit were right.

Identity Crisis is described as a satire. Hmm. Sure, it’s definitely topical with contemporary political issues – an important trait of satire. However, its depiction of life is a little too on the nose and realistic, rather than exaggerated, ironic or ridiculous as satire demands. The posthumous prosecution of Samuel Pepys as a serial sex offender is the only exception – it was sufficiently far fetched to be in the same country as satire, if not in the same county or town. But one example does not a satire make. Sometimes it feels as though Elton wants us to get on board with identity politics and sometimes it feels as though he’s poking fun at it for quick laughs. It left me feeling a bit lost. I have no idea what Elton is satirising…

Unusually for me, I’m going to defer to someone else’s review. Here, Emma Gert encapsulates exactly how I feel about the book. It was all a bit of a pendulum, swinging from extreme to extreme with minimal nuance. And I was very pleased to have finished it so the swinging stopped.

Rating: ❤️❤️🤍🤍🤍

***

The name of the wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind: The Kingkiller Chronicle, Book 1 (Audio Download):  Patrick Rothfuss, Rupert Degas, Orion Publishing Group: Amazon.co.uk: Books
Audible

Rothfuss published this back in 2012 and I’ve long meant to get on and read it. I think I have a copy on my Kindle but I opted for the audiobook instead. It’s a whopping 28 hours and I thought it would take me months of car journeys to get through it but I finished it in under two weeks because I kept reaching for it when doing chores, crafting projects, the washing…

As Rothfuss is fond of a simile (or seventy billion), this is like fish and chips: it’s filling, it’s familiar, it’s something you have as a treat because you recognise it’s not very nutritious and, despite that, you enjoy it so much you keep going back for more.

Fundamentally, Chronicler has tracked down Kvothe (who appears to be in hiding by running an inn) to extract his biography. The toing and froing between the present and the past is really enjoyable; it enables Rothfuss to tell lots of stories with their own narrative arcs, as well as weaving them together into a more epic, overarching story. In this first book of the tale, Rothfuss leads us towards something huge in Kvothe’s biography that’s somehow affected life for everyone – when the book ends, we still have to wait to discover what.

There’s lots to love about the book: Kvothe’s adventures; Rothfuss’ depiction of the impact of sustained poverty on Kvothe’s daily and academic life; the juxtaposition of his precocious intellect and his naivety; his kindness to those less fortunate than him; his willingness to make amends alongside his desire for revenge; and the exploration of truth in comparison to myths and legends. I disagree with others who say that Kvothe is a dislikeable character because he excels at everything (acting, music, magic, academic studies) and lacks flaws. I disagree – his main flaw is that he thinks he lacks flaws; he wants to progress because he’s capable without always recognising he’s not ready; he thinks his course of action or plan is the best because it’s his, rather than slowing down and considering potential consequences; he’s rash. And from these flaws, Rothfuss pulls drama, problems, resolutions and so on.

It drops a heart in my rating for Rothfuss’ depiction of women – far too much objectification for my liking, even when he’s trying to avoid it. Sure, in the retelling of his story, Kvothe is 15 years old and bound to be obsessed with women but I was pretty bored by the many references to “her breasts pressing against my arm.” Perhaps it’s a small mercy that there’s no sex. I know exactly how all the women in the book look – be it his mother, love interest, money lender or peer – which would be fine if Rothfuss helped me to picture what the men looked like with as much clarity.

That said, I enjoyed it well enough to immediately download the second book, which had this gem in the first chapter: “I’d heard he’d started a fist fight in one of the seedier local taverns because someone had insisted on saying the word utilise instead of use.” It’s this humour, I think, which kept me hooked on his writing.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

40 things…

It’s my birthday blog because, somehow, I’ve turned 40. Despite often being the baby of various friend and familial groups, I can no longer evade the fact that I’m an actual adult.

In an utterly narcissistic fashion, here are 40 things you might not know about me, in celebration of making it to 40.

1) My favourite film is V for Vendetta.

2) Kiwis make my throat itch.

3) Bananas make me sick.

Image pinched from here

4) I don’t have a favourite book.

5) I sometimes miss teaching and wonder if I’ve made a mistake.

6) After years of trying for a family, our only success ended in a miscarriage.

7) I have an abject fear of spiders, dentists and being sick (they’re not linked).

8) I like giving gifts more than receiving them.

9) I’ve been to the Harry Potter Studios four times and I’m not even ashamed of it.

If you know, you know

10) I can touch type (badly).

11) I hate that Twitter doesn’t have an edit button.

12) I feel compelled to find solutions to problems.

13) I tackle work in one go rather than breaking it up (even if it’s carrying all of the shopping to the house in a single, Herculean effort).

14) I’m stubborn.

15) But I’m also loyal and trustworthy.

16) My first pet was a rabbit and I called him Mark.

17) I cannot stand mouth noises.

18) I should be chaperoned in book and stationery shops.

19) I hate public transport because it’s stressful as a plus-sized person who is made to feel unwelcome.

20) I vote in all elections where I’m eligible to do so.

21) I didn’t think I was clever enough to do an MA, let alone a PhD (and the jury is still out on the latter).

22) I don’t wear heels because I can (and do) fall over in flat shoes.

23) I love driving.

24) My favourite possession is my Waterman fountain pen (but I wouldn’t say no to a Mont Blanc).

My 30th birthday present to myself

25) As a child, I was terrified by Alice in Wonderland and The Labyrinth – and they seemed to be televised every Bank Holiday.

26) I met my wife in October 2000, in a nightclub, when I was just 19.

27) I’ve been with Helen for longer than I’ve been without her.

28) I love board games.

29) As a child, I hated that my birthday fell in half term; as a teacher, I was delighted by this!

30) I submitted my undergraduate dissertation on a floppy disk and as a spiralbound hardcopy.

31) I still have the hardcopy but I can’t bear to look at it because there’s a typo on page 1.

32) I have a very keen sense of smell.

33) I drink too much coffee.

34) In another life, I’d have loved to be a detective (which is strange, given that Helen would like to be a mastermind criminal).

35) Turns out, I’m quite obsessed with Lego.

Small sample

36) I have to sleep with the window open (which means Helen sleeps in a beanie hat, onesie, socks and jumper for six months of the year).

37) I have no idea when the bins are collected or which one has to be put out each week.

38) When painting, I can cut-in freehand with no masking tape.

39) I only learned how to do short division as an adult.

40) I spent a lot of Lockdown 1 playing Animal Crossing on my Nintendo Switch. Far too much of it. Like, most of it.

Cousin visiting my island

May book reviews

Somehow May has run away from me. Only three books read but I’m already making up for it by reading two books simultaneously for the start of June.

***

Hide and Secrets by Sophie McKenzie

ARC received from Netgalley, due for release 22/07/21

I’m a fan of McKenzie having been introduced to her Split Second books, by a chum’s daughter.

The book follows 14 year old Cat as she navigates life after her father’s death, supporting her (recently) mute sister, Bess, and her troubled relationship with her mum. Just as another family move into the property for a summer project, Cat is informed her father is alive and in danger – Cat has to save him.

The book has everything a teen reader wants in a YA novel: mystery, thrills, some romance (it isn’t overdone), a relatable protagonist and a sense that the kids have some autonomy – in this case, they’re solving a mystery.

I’ve read some other reviews that complain the relationship between Cat and her mum is odd and that Cat’s friends wouldn’t ghost her in light of her father’s “death.” As someone who has taught thousands of teenagers, I found both situations utterly believable. In losing her go-to parent, it’s no wonder that Cat would retreat from the world. Naturally, this would strain her relationship with her mum and potentially alienate her from all but the most persistent friends. I mean, don’t get me wrong… it’s also convenient for the plot and premise because in seeking her father, Cat relies on herself and her new friend, Tyler (one half of the family who move in for the summer), rather than her mum or existing friends. It makes the sleuthing more insular. But convenience doesn’t mean implausibility.

I also note that some reviewers judge Cat’s decision making to be questionable at best and ridiculous at worse. Er, yup. That’s what 14 year olds do! I’m a long time fan of YA fiction; I’m about a minute away from turning 40 and I’ve still not outgrown YA fantasy, SciFi or drama. That said, I recognise I’m relating to the characters and plot through a haggard-40-year-old-lens. I think Cat’s choices are daft but I’m meant to think that. Youngsters in Years 7-10 enjoying Hide and Secrets will most likely resonate with Cat better than I can.

There were definitely sufficient twists to balance out the more obvious turns. And I also really liked Tyler, her sidekick; I wish we could have learned more about his backstory.

Overall, it’s great to have a YA book that’s actually aimed at a YA audience. McKenzie has created another brilliant novel that will comfortably sit in a secondary school library – unlike other books branded as YA which are too smutty or violent to avoid parental complaints. (I imagine this is a publisher problem not authors’ intent).

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

***

I find my strength in simple things by Desree

Paperback, out now

I was fortunate to hear Desree perform at CALC 2021 as Day One’s social event. I was immediately blown away by her.

I am loud.

I’m trying to be heard.

I do try to have the last word,

because you didn’t listen to the first.

Black Girl Magic by Desree

She writes about identity, politics, love, icons and, even, hangovers. There’s nothing she can’t explore with her persistent and inventive language. I was hooked and had ordered myself and a friend copies of her book within minutes of her performance ending.

I love that the poems are peppered with QR codes – they link you to Desree performing live in different settings. It’s like getting two gifts: the written record and her lyrical, melodic, hypnotic performances.

With Desree, it doesn’t feel like a simple case of mic drop moments. It’s more like she drop kicks the mic, aiming hard and with fierce accuracy for the people at the back who choose not to ‘get it.’

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

***

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin

eBook read on Kindle

I somehow missed the Armistead Maupin boat the first time around but I know my brother was definitely captain of the ship.

It was the May choice for The Information School’s virtual book club. And it was chosen as a palate cleanser following two gritty and pretty intense books (The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota and The Power by Naomi Alderman). The plan was to read something not too taxing and definitely a little nostalgic.

Well, I can say it made me very grateful to have met Helen in the times of going-to-a-pub-or-club. Long have I been smug that I missed the swipe right era and that I haven’t needed to navigate dating with apps, social media and t’interweb. It transpires that I also would have found courting in the 70s and 80s exhausting. It seems the entire cast of characters in Tales of the City are on one long, arduous campaign to you-know-what. And that supermarkets, bookstores, workplaces, cornershops, laundrettes were all legitimate places to find hook ups or partners, as long as you knew the rules. I probably channel far too much Mary Ann Singleton as I find it all too much! What if I just wanted to buy an avocado, pick up a paperback and wash my jeans?

It’s dialogue driven and episodic in nature, which made sense when I learned (thanks to book club) that it had originally been serialised. Maupin plays with sex, sexuality, drugs, family, race, class and wealth all through the characters’ relationships with one another. There’s something very soap opera about it – individual lives all cleverly intertwined with one another. I tried to listen to it on Audible as well as reading it, to speed up preparation for book club, but I found it was hard to keep track of all the characters in an audio format.

I enjoyed it and I’m glad I finally read it… but I’m not sure I’d read the rest of the series. It doesn’t hold any nostalgia for me as it’s neither my era nor did I read it when it was first popular. It’s hard to conjure up the same affection for 28 Barbary Lane as This Life, The L Word or Queer as Folk because I watched these at their peak.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️🤍🤍

An inCALCulably excellent conference

What do alpacas, pets, Mary Poppins and poetry all have in common?

CALC 20201.

I was very lucky to be in receipt of a bursary, sponsored by the Information School, to attend the Critical Approaches to Libraries Conference (CALC) 2021 earlier this month. It was my second virtual conference since the pandemic began and I was prepared for two days of fidgeting at my desk.

I wasn’t prepared for the brilliance of CALC 2021.

There was so much rich material that I scrabbled to make notes and engage with the sessions; therefore, if I’ve misrepresented anything, I apologise in advance and will gratefully receive correction. Also, many thanks to the wonderful folks who tweeted with the hashtag #CALC2021 for helping to jog my unreliable memory; a particular shout out goes to Alina (@NaulisLeRugu) whose live tweets were chef’s kiss.

I’ve chosen some highlights from each day.

*** Day 1 ***

Registration

Typically, registration on the first day of a conference involves checking in, coffee, awkward mingling and some sort of orientation of the space. CALC 2021 welcomed us onto Zoom and promptly instigated a show ‘n’ tell of delegates’ pets. I had booted Edith to doggie daycare and Maggie isn’t one for clambering up to be on camera, so they missed out. But I’d say pet-cam is a definite perk of attending a conference virtually (that, and getting away with wearing your pyjama bottoms).

Taking pride in our work? A case study analysis of the lived experience of LGBTQIA+ staff working in a UK HE institution (David Bennet)

This was an interesting case study which validated lots of experiences I’ve had as an out member of staff in different settings (not all of them libraries). David reported that the case study shows the experiences of LGBTQIA+ staff can vary, affected by line management support, the team composition, past experiences, age and financial situations. Moreover, the experiences of asexual, bisexual, transgender and non-binary folks can be overlooked, particularly as these identities are often absent from diversity training. The research offers lots of solutions and actions:

  • staff groups, subgroups and networks can be powerful spaces to share experiences and promote a sense of belonging;
  • line managers need to identify and try to resolve conflicts as early as possible, which means being vigilant and open to communication;
  • engendering a culture of mutual respect is of paramount importance – leadership setting good examples is a healthy place to start;
  • mentoring is a great tool, including peer mentoring for LGBTQIA+ to support one another, reverse mentoring so that managers can learn from LGBTQIA+ staff and coaching to help team members who are change resistant.

Working class academics in the library (panel discussion with Andrew Preater, Jo Forster, Kay Sidebottom, Shona Smith, Hina Suleman and Lisa Taylor).

I had a pre-existing commitment to a doctoral training programme session at university that clashed with this panel. As a working class, first generation university goer, I was gutted to miss this. I can see from the brilliant Alina’s tweeting, that the panel discussed topics very close to my heart; I recommend having a read here.

Epistemic alienation in African scholarly communications: libraries in the age of technocoloniality (keynote address from Dr Thomas Hervé Mboa Nkoudou)

This was my first exposure to the notion of coloniality. Where colonialism is the political dimension of colonisation, perceived to end with liberation, coloniality encompasses oppressive economic and social structures which are pervasive and persistent. Technocoloniality is coloniality through the lens of technology: neo-capitalist practices, techno-utopian rhetoric (tech will solve social problems), technology transfer and coloniality of knowledge. The latter refers to the imposition of Western global history onto non-Western peoples; in academia, it’s present in books, cultural models, codes, aspirations, academic performance criteria… Not least because most scientific discourse is carried out in English.

The transfer of knowledge is a vehicle of coloniality; knowledge is distorted to fit a Western frame. “We can define epistemic alienation as the distortion of one’s narrative way of thinking, and of seeing and speaking of one’s own reality” (Nkoudou, 2021). Nkoudou argues that the African university system is a leading factor in epistemic alienation because it adopts Eurocentric practices and is dependent on the West. Leaders, researchers and libraries need to adopt open access literacy, policies and infrastructures to begin to diminish epistemic alienation and technocoloniality.

I know I haven’t done justice to Nkoudou’s presentation as I am woefully under-read in this area. Please do explore his keynote address, in full, here.

Break times

It’s worth noting that this was one of the exemplary features of the conference. The organisers (Darren Flynn and Michelle Bond) were hyperaware of the attendee experience and ensured that all breaks were met on time. No overrunning meant plenty of time to rehydrate, play with a pet, pop to the whatsit and stuff your face with snacks – I even popped out at lunchtime to vote on the second day. At no point did I feel harassed, late, or like I had to choose between my comfort and missing out. Although I don’t need them, I was also pleased to see that closed captions were available for all sessions without any fuss. Darren and Michelle tag-teamed to make sure the parallel sessions had tech support and someone monitoring the chat. It was a masterclass in how to make a conference seem effortlessly accessible and inclusive.

Rethinking the public of the academic library: access, community and engagement (Ben Cornish and Katherine Quinn)

Against a backdrop of increasing fees and ongoing austerity making higher education (HE) more exclusive, Ben and Katherine discussed public access to HE libraries (link). Ben presented a survey of 25 HE libraries and its early conclusions. The survey shows that most HE libraries require members of the public to register or pay to access collections; also, around half of the libraries surveyed do not allow access to eCollections (eBooks, online journals). For members of the public, access privileges to HE libraries are often hierarchical: university almuni, students from other universities, school or college students whose organisations have partnerships with the university, public services workers (such as council, social care or NHS ) and public library users.

Katherine followed the survey outcomes by exploring a slice of her PhD research – an ethnographic study of The Hive, in Worcester. The Hive, which I’ve studied before during an MA module, is a flagship for academic-public library partnerships. According to its website, the name represents “purposeful activity, and sense of community.” Opened in 2012, it aims for the HE and public library service provisions to be indistinguishable.

The Hive (image source)

Katherine’s research demonstrates that The Hive is really a shared space that is integrating rather than integrated: subverting design means it blurs what is public / academic; shelving public and academic collections together leads to unexpected encounters; uncomplicating access generates cross-borrowing. Katherine comments that The Hive offers a “managed surface upon which these live practices of public engagement with knowledge can take place.” That isn’t to say it’s without conflict, negotiation or compromise but these imperfections are actually productive. Given my area of research, I was pleased to hear Ben and Katherine note that some literature is critical of this hybrid approach because of its potential erasure of the public library. It would be easy to imagine other local authorities falling short in their attempts to emulate The Hive, resulting in more examples of outsourced public library spaces.

As I was drafting my reflections, the brilliant Dr Emma Fields sent me a link to an article by Georgina Bowyer, for WONKHE. It discusses academic and public libraries’ civic commonalities. The Engaging Libraries programme supports public libraries to work with universities and researchers to engage the public with health, society and culture activities.

Colour blind: investigating the racial bias of virtual reference services in English academic libraries. (Sally Harmer)

Sally’s research is equally interesting and worrying (link). Lots of students will use different technological methods to engage with library reference services: live chat, instant message, email. Not only is it efficient and convenient, it can minimise social anxiety for those who don’t want to approach a librarian face to face. Sally wanted to explore the evidence of racial bias in these exchanges.

The scope and process of Sally Harmer’s research

The queries were posed as though the person asking was not a student at the organisation; each was assigned a different name to imply a country of origin or ethnic group. Based on digital reference guidelines from IFLA, the responses from the academic librarians were reviewed in five areas: service provision, clarity, courtesy, approachability and information literacy. Positively, Sally can report that over 90% of the queries received a response and over 40% of the queries were offered an answer; most emails received a response promptly, within a day. However, Sally also reports that there were noticeable treatment inequalities, evidence of name-based microaggressions and a general lack of adherence to best practice guidelines.

Research findings

The research is worrying because of my misguided hope that librarians hold ourselves to a higher standard of inclusivity and fairness; it is disappointing to be reminded that we do often fall short. That said, it is also promising that CALC 2021 was so well attended as it shows that many of us are actively learning and trying.

Social event 1

I’m one of those people who presents as confident and, dare I say it, adept in social settings but I’m really an introvert… If you know me, you probably won’t believe me because I do a good job of hiding it. Usually, I’ll try to avoid or manage the social aspects of conferences because I prefer more regimented settings – like the talks – because they have easy-to-follow expectations. I’ll be honest and admit I went to the social event on Day 1 out of a threefold sense of duty. First, I was attending on a bursary (thanks, Information School) so felt I should try to embrace the full conference. Second, I had been so impressed with the day’s sessions, I didn’t want the evening event to be poorly attended. Third, in our previous doctoral training programme session, we’d discussed conference attendance and their social elements. My peers and the PGR director had pondered what such events would look like in a virtual setting; I’d vowed I would check them out at CALC 2021 and report back.

As I mentioned earlier, CALC 2021 was a masterclass in how to run a conference online and the social events really set the tone. We were treated to a poetry performance by Desree. I had never heard of her and I was completely blown away. It’s a good job I was on mute because I kept hollering “Yes! YAS! Exactly!” as she powered through gem after gem. Within five minutes of her set finishing, I’d ordered three copies of her book, I find my strength in simple things. I’ll be featuring it in my next book review blog. She is on fire.

Desree (image source)

*** Day 2 ***

Morning coffee

Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love a free coffee and pastry when you’re at a conference? Or tea, if the coffee is questionable. CALC 2021 couldn’t deliver buttery, sugary goodness… so what did they give us, instead? Actual bloody alpacas! Genius!

Decolonising the GLAM sector, one practice at a time (keynote address from Jass Thethi)

I made so few notes because I was utterly engaged with Jass’ content, wisdom and relaxed mode of presenting.

Decolonise your mind

Things I learned…

  • Decolonisation is a social justice model and must be intersectional to be effective.
  • You can’t decolonise anything until you first decolonise your mind.
  • Decolonising the GLAM sector has to happen at a cellular level
  • The organisation, classification and cataloguing systems are ingrained with colonisation so failure to address them means decolonisation attempts are superficial
  • Essentially, information governance is Euro and Western-centric
  • GLAM institutions are looked to, by society, as holders of memories and facts – the cultural impact of white, Eurocentric collections is the reinforcement of misinformation, misrepresentation and erasure
  • The GLAM sector needs to work on language and discoverability to avoid objectionable descriptions and erasure; empowered (and paid) collaboration is the key to more effective practice

Jass left a significant impression. Two of her key messages are still echoing in my head, a few weeks on. First, choosing not to be political is a privilege. Many folks have identities which mean it’s not an option – simply existing in public is deemed political, whether or not they want it to be. Second, “don’t let your mistakes deter you from being better.” As a white, straight passing woman, these comments resonate with me. Those parts of my identity which other me can be hidden; and when I choose not to, that’s imbued with a privilege that I live in an area where it’s safe to do so. I can choose to be apolitical. Also, as a white woman, I understand the fear of getting it wrong, of misstepping, of exhibiting a saviour complex, of offending someone. But that shouldn’t deter me from trying, as long as I remain open to learning, listening and accepting when I have it wrong.

Punk pedagogy (Maria King)

I love a good oxymoron: punk is anti-authority and pedagogy is usually hierarchical in nature (I’ll update with the link when this session is available).

The principles of punk pedagogy:

  • honesty,
  • authenticity,
  • empowerment,
  • innovation,
  • experimentation,
  • risk taking,
  • creativity,
  • autonomy,
  • equity,
  • rebellion,
  • critique,
  • solidarity,
  • community,
  • collaboration,
  • action,
  • reciprocity,
  • passion,
  • rejection of authority.

There is no singular definition of punk pedagogy because that would contradict the notion of punk. But punk pedagogy embraces punk values as an ethos that guides practice. There are strong overlaps with social constructivism: learner centred, learning occurs through interactions, the teacher as a facilitator and a sense of shared ownership.

In an HE setting, Maria advised that there is a balance to be struck between embracing punk and working within the organisational machine. You don’t want to sell out but you do need to pick your battles! Punk pedagogy can positively influence your practice and how you perceive your role as an educator: be a guide and a coach, not a dictator; engage in self reflection; build feedback and critique into all learning not just formative assignments; strive to be flexible and open to ideas from the students; and encourage criticality. Students need support to think, read, write, appraise and discuss critically.

I really enjoyed the example of an assessment or activity, whereby students edit a Wikipedia page. It creates the opportunity to teach about choosing and appraising sources, how to reference and the importance of open access. It provides a genuine audience and potentially immediate impact – all the while, students add to the global knowledge base and have a clear ownership of their own development.

Critically appraising for antiracism (Ramona Naicker)

What a speaker (link)! Clear, informative, engaging, interactive: Ramona was a highlight of CALC 202. And given there were alpacas, that’s saying something.

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And I thought I was behind in my reading!

Ramona commented that whilst there is a wealth of research each year, it needs to be critically appraised, even if it’s peer reviewed, because “not all research is created equal.” To critical appraise, you need to check it’s relevant (to the population of interest), reliable (for example, confirmation bias) and valid (for example, with sampling or selection bias). Ramona’s presentation was specifically focused on critically appraising for antiracism because racism in research can lead to underrepresentation and misinterpretation.

In terms of misinterpretation, Ramona argued that avoiding the word racism risks resurrecting disproven theories about biological race. Take this example from 2002… bloody 2002!

Where do you even start with this?!

Moreover, blaming race for health outcomes effectively blames the patient, implying that there’s just nothing that can be done about the health problem. Papers which cite societal drivers as a factor sugarcoat racism: obscuring racism is to fail to seek solutions to racism as health interventions; race and ethnicity are fluid social constructs not biological facts; race doesn’t cause health issues; and racism can be addressed or changed.

By this point, the topic could have been overwhelming and depressing… but Ramona provided practical tips and advice on how to critically appraise for anti-racism, so that even as individual cogs in the massive information sharing machine, we can start to have an impact. As library professionals connecting students and NHS staff to materials, we should:

  • use critical appraisal tools;
  • check whether BAME participants have been recruited;
  • check that BAME participants are representative of the wider population and study;
  • make sure the ethnicity data on BAME participants is accurate;
  • expect a full interpretation of differences in outcomes between groups;
  • review the impact of discrimination which prevents ‘race’ itself being assigned as a risk;
  • question genetic interpretations of race.

Interrogating professionalism: professional behaviours through a critical lens (Darren Flynn)

I knew it was going to be a good afternoon when Patricia Carmichael featured on one of the slides! I enjoyed this session because there was a great deal of interaction in the chat and it felt like a two way conversation.

This character brings me out in hives

Darren discussed that customs, conventions, social mores and expectations constitute a professional culture. Some people lack the social capital (due to their background or lived experience) to inherently know about professional behaviours, so they have to learn on the job. This can be tricky and stressful to navigate. Professionalism is a game and an endless performance; as the rules aren’t officially written anywhere, it can be elitist and exclusionary.

Many people (I count myself here) fear being perceived as unprofessional. This fear swung the conversation around to that job advert. For those unfamiliar with the job, check it out. Here’s a teaser…

Wowsa

The whole advert is vile and a perfect example of how the toxicity of saving face and maintaining the hierarchy can disenfranchise people to challenge behaviours. The worry is speaking out or taking collective action for the workers = undermining the organisation = being unprofessional.

Darren offered insight into how indirect, ambiguous language can lead to perceived unprofessionalism when, in fact, it is a miscommunication. For instance, By Monday would be great isn’t a suggestion; it’s an instruction framed as an option. Moreover, a culture of faux politeness leads to a saccharine level of passive aggressiveness and tone policing. It affects individuals by forcing them to seek compromises rather than fighting for library users or peers because if you don’t play the game, you’re considered unprofessional. This relates strongly to constructed consensus in the workplace because it can mask power structures, workers feel compelled to compromise, working groups are self appointed and consensus can be apparent rather than real.

Social event 2

Having featured pets, alpacas and poetry, the CALC 2021 organisers told us that Day 2 would end with a tea party. We were strongly encourage to bring family members, our own cake and the mystery package we’d received in the post.

I took this seriously and arranged two types of gluten free cake for the occasion

After the delights of the Day 1 social event, featuring Desree, I was excited to find out how the tea party would pan out. I dragged Helen along, too, with the promise of cake.

If a the second day of conference starts with alpacas, how does it end?

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A spoonful of sugar to help CALC 2021 go down

With Mary Poppins, of course. It was a wonderfully personalised, utterly surreal, delightfully unexpected hour of entertainment. There was music, singing, story telling and anecdotes. I don’t care that I’m nearly (very nearly) 40, being read to is still a cathartic experience. We even flew paper kites – the items sent to us in the mysterious package. I’ve graffitied mine, courtesy of Jass Thethi, and it’s flying on my Kanban Board.

This was my first CALC attendance and I will be most certainly signing up for future conferences. 10/10 would recommend.