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
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.
Beyond the Black Door by A. M. Strickland
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.
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
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.
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
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.
Identity Crisis by Ben Elton
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.
The name of the wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss published this back in 2007 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.
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
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).
I find my strength in simple things by Desree
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.’
Tales of the Cityby Armistead Maupin
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.
What do alpacas, pets, Mary Poppins and poetry all have in common?
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 ***
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
*** Day 2 ***
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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?
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.
I meant to put these up over the weekend but the Mayday bank holiday was dominated by a malevolent migraine.
Only three books across April but, flippydoodah, they were good.
I often get my greedy mitts on advance reading copies (ARCs). Last month, I had a complaint from an aunty who wanted to buy a book I’d reviewed and was grumpy to discover it wasn’t yet available. Oops. Moving forward, please find expected release dates in the image captions for each book.
Anna by Sammy H.K. Smith
Because of the nature of the story, this is a spoiler-free review so it will seem vague at times!
The book is set in the not too distant future, in our world following a global breakdown of society. Many people are nomadic, some live in small travelling groups and there are a few settled communities. As you’d expect, life has changed dramatically and for the worse. Women are owned by men, frequently branded and imprisoned.
Smith creates a three part structure, in which we see the protagonist in different settings and learn different things about her. We first meet The Woman (I won’t name her as it could be a spoiler), who was nomadic for two years, just as she is trapped by The Man in the wild (unnamed for similar spoiler concerns). This first of three parts covers The Woman’s imprisonment and abuse at the hands of The Man. It’s viscerally grim and hard to stomach. The first person narrative means the reader is able to watch the impact of such abuse from a front row seat. Smith doesn’t hold back: it’s harrowing and authentic.
The second section covers The Woman’s escape and resettlement in a static community. There is hope here but Smith also deals with the impact of acute trauma. Unable to relax or let her guard down, The Woman remains cautious and careful. The other community members are brilliantly depicted by Smith – they’re complicated, multi-faceted and never entirely innocent. Whilst reading, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own morality. In a dystopian world, what parts of myself would I be willing to sacrifice to survive?
The final section is taut. And that’s pretty much all I can say without revealing narrative points which would spoil the book for the next reader. I was worried I’d be disappointed with how Smith wrapped up the tale but I was absolutely sated by it.
Finishing the book, I was relieved and exhausted. My neck and jaw ached where I’d clearly been tensing as I read. I can’t say I enjoyed it – it’s not an enjoyable book – but I was utterly gripped by it. I read it across two days and the night in between was riddled with dreams of The Woman. If a book worms its way into your subconscious, the author is doing a lot of things right.
There are difficult topics covered in the book but they would be obvious spoilers. So my warning is that it’s not for the faint hearted and I’ll also give you some genre clues: dystopian, crime, drama, psychological thriller.
Blackout by Dhonielle Clayton, Tiffany D. Jackson, Nic Stone, Angie Thomas, Ashley Woodfolk and Nicola Yoon
First of all, what a powerhouse of writers! I’m already a fan of all of these wordsmiths so I was giddy to discover them all bound together in one book.
Second, you’d be forgiven for thinking I don’t like romantic storylines if you’ve read any of my other book reviews. Thing is, I have a problem with books which are advertised as adventure / SciFi / fantasy novels with grand political, fate-of-the-world story lines and transpire to be female-falls-in-love-with-bad-moody-male-and-fixes-him. Not only is the trope tired and riddled with toxic views of relationships, it’s rarely what I was led to believe I was buying into. Blackout is the inverse of this: it’s advertised as a collection of YA love stories which unravel during a New York City blackout… and yet, it is refreshingly much more than this.
“The blackout makes the city feel like it’s on hold, like someone hit a giant pause button.”
Each writer takes charge of a protagonist and a short story but they are connected to create one novel, with characters popping up in each other’s narrative arcs and well-rounded, distinct voices. It’s the ultimate multiple-narrators situation and it’s utterly convincing. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, is one of my all time favourite plays because of this kind of mischievous cleverness. There’s a joy and recognition when characters from Hamlet appear in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s story. Blackout achieves this in a way that’s both entertaining and thoughtful. It seems effortless.
The effortlessness continues with the deft handling of different identities – love stories are portrayed from male, female, straight and queer perspectives. Without judgement. Without clunkiness. Without excessive sugar. It’s rich, clever story telling. Despite my obvious love for all things LGBTQ+ in YA literature, I found the most powerful story was “No sleep ’til Brooklyn.” Not only did Thomas incisively present bigotry with the depiction of the slappable teacher, she developed a lead female character who realises she doesn’t need to be defined by her romantic relationship to either of the boys in her life. She can settle into her own skin and learn to just be herself. I love this.
In her acknowledgements, Taylor explains that Blackout is the result of questioning “why Black girls didn’t get big love stories.” It’s a fantastic own voicesbook, centring and celebrating teen Black experiences of self-discovery, love and growing up.
For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten
This is the first of the Wilderwood novels and Whitten has stated it will be a duology.
For the Wolf nods to Red Riding Hood, Beauty and the Beast and other fairy tales. Essentially, Redarys (Red) is destined to be sacrificed to the Wolf by virtue of being the second born daughter. It’s rotten luck given she is a twin. The practice is intended to keep the world safe from the Wilderwood and the Shadowlands, as well as potentially returning the Five Kings who have been missing for centuries.
Yes, there’s a misunderstood male and, yes, our protagonist falls in love with him. And, yes again, this would usually put me off. But although it’s a necessary facet of the plot – after all, this is rooted in traditional fairy tale conventions – Whitten hasn’t let it dominate the narrative. I enjoyed the depiction of other relationships, which aren’t as conventional. For instance, the Queen’s coldness towards her daughters, particularly Red, is quietly brutal. Why get close when Red is never destined to be hers because she’s ringfenced for the Wolf? It adds an interesting dimension to the characters’ decision making. Fife and Lyra, two inhabitants of the Wilderwood, have an unusual but refreshing bond:
“Well. Not like that, not really. It’s complicated… Lyra isn’t one for romance. Never has been. But she’s the most important person in my life, and has been for centuries now. That’s enough.”
I also really appreciated the way that Whitten depicted trauma and its aftermath. Sure, the Wolf is predictable in that he doesn’t deal with his trauma, broods and thinks he has to take on the burdens of everyone else as some sort of punishment. I’ve definitely read that before. But Whitten also shows the reluctance of people to leave a place of trauma even when the freedom is afforded to them. She shows characters righting traumas suffered by others, both through risky actions and introspective reflection. And, most powerfully of all, Whitten has a welcome take on self-forgiveness:
“You saved her.” Eammon’s voice was low, earnest. “None of it was your fault.”
“I don’t even think of it in terms of fault anymore.” Red hunched over her crossed arms. “It happened. I have to live with it.”
Probably the aspect I most enjoyed was the effort spent by Whitten on world building. It’s been a rushed flaw in some of the recent books I’ve read but Whitten takes her time. The spaces are many and complicated; we’re taken with Red as she learns the Wilderwood isn’t as she expected it to be. There are some passages that made me audibly oooh because the language and description is just exceptional. Whitten frequently turns a phrase that makes me envious. My favourite: “Red didn’t pick at the quiet.” So simple. Perfect.
The implication of the sequel’s title, For the Throne, is that we get to learn more from Neve’s point of view – the other twin. I am hoping that it doesn’t pick up where it left the story and that it actually goes back a little way so Whitten can show what was happening in the other places as the plot crescendoed.
This post was written in 2021. Maggie gifted us another year of cuddles, walks and love before we had to say goodbye (19/01/2022).
Our eldest canine child, Maggie, is 13 on the 11th May. A beautiful English Springer Spaniel. She is seriously slowing down: her arthritis is getting to her, her eyesight is failing and she frequently forgets why she’s entered a room. A couple of recent incidents – where she’s clearly been in acute pain – have us worried that our time together is rapidly running out. She didn’t want to stand up this weekend so we had another trip to the vets who adjusted her pain meds. We’re actually grateful for the year+ stuck at home because it has meant uninterrupted time with her.
(You can’t see on a post blog but there was an hour’s break here so I could snuggle her and cry. Pets really do break your heart).
Anyway, I don’t want to write Maggie a eulogy after she’s gone; I’d much rather write her very own acknowledgements page whilst she’s still here and I can read it to her.
We got Maggie back in 2008. Helen (my wife) had been through a major health scare, serious surgery and subsequent emergency surgeries to stem internal bleeding. Afterwards, we got the puppy we had always said we’d have one day because we realised we didn’t want to put things off when tomorrow can be so uncertain. Maggie is our yay-Helen-didn’t-die dog. When we arrived to pick up 8 week old Maggie, we realised it was not a good breeder – the conditions weren’t awful but they weren’t great either. And the pups had been docked. We couldn’t leave her there because we were immediately in love.
Helen wanted to call her Cat – she thought it would be hilarious on dog walks. It was vetoed. She also suggested She-Ra, Mumm-Ra and Moog. All also vetoed. Although I conceded and allowed Moog as her middle name: Maggie Moog. It’s the origin of her nickname, Maggie Moo Moo, which was inevitably shortened to Moo or MooMoos.
Thank you, Maggie, for giving us a much better routine. We were both prone to working 16+ hours a day in the office / at school; once you were part of our family, one of us would be sure to get back early to be with you. I mean, the work continued but at least we were doing it at home.
Thank you not only for the interesting walks but also for the holidays. I know Helen likes to travel abroad but I’m happiest when you’re with us on a holiday… and that means exploring the UK. We’ve stayed in some lovely spots and visited loads of beaches. You haven’t once caught a bird but that hasn’t stopped you trying.
Thank you for being my insomnia buddy. I think my night time shenanigans are probably why you’re so good at your daytime naps. It doesn’t matter whether I’m powering through the night for a deadline, up as a slave to my bladder or just having an existential crisis… you’re there with a tail wag and a snuggle.
Thank you for being such an empathetic soul. You can’t bear it if we’re ill, if we’re sad, if we’re bickering or even if we’re just retelling tales from work with Oscar-worthy performances. You’re straight in there with a nose boop and a cuddle to make it all better. For five years, we tried to have a family. You saw us through all of those painful, failed attempts, the constant stress and the miscarriage that took me years to get over. I’m no good at speaking about how I feel but it has always been easy to speak to you. You’re the best listener, even though you always express your opinion very clearly with a trademark snort.
Thank you for being an absolute trooper. I’ve lost count of the surgeries you’ve had: neutered, cut paw (not your fault), knee reconstruction (not your fault), bladder operation (not your fault) and stitches for a barbed wire incident (that one was probably your fault). You’ve been the goodest doggo with all of those recoveries, even though you’ve wanted to spring and bounce because it’s in your nature. I’m pretty sure our insurance company isn’t your biggest fan. The bladder operation was scary: we were told it was cancer and you might not make it through the operation if the vet decided it was too much to cut away. It had all happened so fast and I was away for work. I insisted that Helen brought you home – the surgery was due to be the next day – so I could drive back from Sheffield (250 miles ish) to spend that night with you in case it was our last. Not a chance that I would miss a snuggle and a goodbye. Turned out not to be cancer and we’ve had many more years with you since.
Thank you for the many, many, many wonderful memories. Your willingness to dress in clothes and pose for a photograph. Your love of our (now diminished) cat clan. Your apathy towards poor Edith who we thought would be good company for you in your elder years (hahahahaha). Your sweet tooth*, which we discovered after you stole a dozen donuts when we were asleep and had to deal with a hyper-sugar-rush version of an already springy Springer for 48 hours.
Thank you for being the absolute best girl. You’ve done so much for us.
* we do not enable her sweet tooth but it doesn’t stop her hopelessly begging if we have cake.
‘Twas a varied reading month. Reading back these reviews, I realise I compare books a lot!
Stone’s Mistake by Adrian J. Smith
There was a lot to like about Stone’s Mistake but also a few jarring issues. I think I tried to overlook the issues because I so wanted to enjoy a crime novel with LGBTQ+ protagonists.
It is fairly unusual to write a serial killer as a woman. The chapters narrated through Lollie’s perspective (the killer) were interesting; I enjoyed Smith’s handling of Lollie’s warped perception of what was happening. The lack of back story, however, left a huge gap in her characterisation – particularly as the novel starts just as Lollie’s actions are escalating. I wanted to know how she got to this point and how she’d been living before her killing spree.
Also, whilst Lollie was sinister and plausible, I didn’t find her victims as believable. The idea that a mature, professionally successful woman would immediately let a complete stranger she’d met on the path by her driveway stay in her home just because there’s snow seems… unlikely. Let alone the idea they have *wink wink* within a couple of hours of meeting. It’s like Smith’s depiction of women gives with one hand (a creepy, dangerous female killer) and takes away with the other (weak-willed, easily duped women).
The chapters centred on Morgan Stone (FBI Agent) are also problematic. It’s pleasing that Smith presents a strong woman. Also, the complicated relationship with her cop-partner-best-mate, Pax, offers a thoughtful insight on friendships which endure despite ideological differences. But the over-reliance on Morgan’s coffee drinking as a defining character trait was thin. And some of Stone’s titular mistakes are just ridiculous. Out of the blue, and without any kind of an invitation, she kisses a police officer outside a crime scene. Really? As a lead agent and profiler, she doesn’t disclose phone calls she’s received despite the fact she knows the Bureau can trace them. Really, really? I don’t buy it.
Did I finish the book because I needed to see how it ended? Yes. If it was a TV series, would I watch it? Probably. Will I buy the next in the series, I’m not convinced.
Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker
Well, now, this is a Marmite book… and I’m a fan of Marmite.
It seems that the very things which put some people off, appealed to me: slow, creepy, cryptic, dystopian.
The writing style is deliberately languid, with a building sense of dread. They’re not in the least bit similar but the only other book I’ve read that’s created that stinging-nettle sensation of anguish was Affinity by Sarah Waters. Composite Creatures isn’t a horror story, per se, but finishing it was both disorientating and a relief.
Consider me very excited to see what Caroline Hardaker publishes next.
Raising Hell by Bryony Pearce
Bryony Pearce’s Raising Hell feels a bit like the natural progression for anyone who enjoyed the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan. Not the same mythical world but similar, more grown up and very much set in the UK.
I really enjoyed it and galloped through the book in just two sittings, frequently tutting at my wife whenever she interrupted me. It throws you straight into the action and the world, so you have to rely on the narrator, Ivy, to orientate you. It’s a great way to build affinity for a protagonist. I’ve not read anything else by Pearce but I find her tone and characterisation very appealing, so I’ll definitely be grabbing more of her work.
Whilst Pearce delves into magic, zombies, spell-casting and dead things, she really uses these to tackle a wide range of bigger issues like grief, responsibility, guilt and consequences. Choices aren’t straight forward and the wrong-doers aren’t always in the wrong: that complexity adds to the narrative.
Ivy’s world is our world but different; I do wish there was a little more world-building. I can absolutely see how politics would have changed when magic appeared (particularly in the hands of teenagers) but I’d like to linger with that idea for longer and learn more about it. Within a fantastical setting, it could provide YA readers an insight into how political landscapes can shift and how national crises can be hijacked for political power. Given that Pearce has potentially left the rift* open for a sequel, I’m hoping we get to see more of this.
What I have relished the most is the carefully balanced combination of action, gore and humour. In the same chapter, the narrator explains she “had less sense than a Year Seven in the last week before Christmas” and a few lines later describes “a bubbling hiss from the woman as air rasped in and out of her mangled throat.” This isn’t the goriest moment by a mile but I don’t want to spoil any delights for future readers of the book.
And if you need another reason to pick up a copy, there’s a talking cat.
*It’s an in-joke… you’ll get it when you’ve read the book!
A Queer Little Book of Tales by H.R. Harrison
This was quite a departure from my normal book reading diet and I really enjoyed it. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d seen some reviews with low ratings. It seems to be that the complaints of other reviewers are not particularly fair, so my review is going to tackle them head on.
Some people have expressed disappointment that the queer nature of the book (as advertised in the title) is primarily focused on the gay male experience, with some nods to gender identity. It irks me that writers who explore LGBTQ+ narratives are criticised for not representing the entire rainbow in their work. We don’t do this with heteronormative books so why is the expectation that LGBTQ+ books will be all things to all people all of the time? I can only assume it’s because readers approached the book with their own understanding of and hopes for the term “queer.”
A second complaint relates to the pace of the book – that it’s too slow. I agree it’s slow but didn’t see this as a terrible quality. It seems mellow and comfortable in its own skin. Harrison sets a pace that matches the nature of the stories as they feel like character explorations rather than action-focused plots.
A final complaint I saw was that the pitch is confusing because it’s like a child’s book but with decidedly more mature themes and descriptions. I think this is a narrow, Disney-esque critique. The fairy tales of old were mature in nature and often pretty grim. Depicting magic, creatures, love and fantastical elements doesn’t inherently mean a narrative is childish or aimed at children.
In addition to these points, I particularly enjoyed the tales which were interconnected but not always in obvious ways – it adds a richness to the story telling. Also, the blending of fairy tale and SciFi elements (From stars they fell) feels like an homage to the titular queerness: a little unexpected and different but brilliant because of it. Finally, and I suppose it’s related to the aforementioned slowness, I was pleased the short stories aren’t too short. It means there is ample time to get to know the characters and to invest in their experiences.
A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas
You know when you feel committed to a series and so you want to see it through even though it’s wavering? Like Game of Thrones series 9 and 10? Yeah, that.
I feel like the books are getting worse not better. I don’t normally provide a summary (because I like to avoid spoilers) but it goes a little like this: sex sex sex sex sex sex badly handled PTSD sex sex sex sex sex sex some healthy female comradeship sex sex sex sex sex superficially depicted trauma sex sex sex sex exercise cures depression sex sex sex sex women with eating disorders can still be objectified sex sex sex sex sex misogyny presented as feminism sex sex sex sex the victim is the apologiser sex sex sex sex sex predictable fantasy tropes about scent and mating bonds sex sex sex sex. It’s rammed (I think that verb was used for the sex at one point?) with mental health stereotypes. Fine, it happens in books and, as I said in the review of Harrison’s book, an author can’t be all things to all people. But, Maas has made the mental health of the protagonist the main point of the story. Nesta’s fall, trauma and recovery are the sum parts of the narrative and their portrayal leaves an unpleasant after taste.
I’ll provide an example, from the beginning of the book, to illustrate what I mean. Nesta has been drinking, partying and shagging her way through her trauma – failing to eat or look after herself. She is spending her brother-in-law’s money at taverns across the city (we know he’s rolling in money from frequent mentions in previous books). The family decide to invoke an intervention… not because she’s clearly crying out for help but because she is embarrassing them. The intervention is to essentially imprison her and cut her off from everyone. It grates because her sisters, in earlier books in the series, are given space, time and kindness to overcome their traumas. Also (and this might demonstrate my point more clearly), despite being very ill, this is how she’s viewed by Cassian when he’s sent to fetch her for the intervention:
He took the invitation to survey her: long bare legs, an elegant sweep of hips, tapered waist – too damn thin – and full, inviting breasts that were at odds with the new, sharp angles of her body. On any other female, those magnificent breasts might have been enough cause for him to begin courting her the moment he met her… His gaze kept snagging on her breasts, peaked against the chill morning; her bare skin. The apex of her thighs.
Sure, she’s unwell and on the brink of despair but take the time to mention how horny she makes you. Plus the lack of autonomy implied by him courting her. Ugh. And it’s the first of many, many, maaaaany times her genitals are referred to as her apex.
I have nothing against books which some folks might categorise as trashy. I don’t even mind books full of sex. They fill a void or a need. It’s just that the A Court of… series is pretending to be something else. Best way I can describe it is by comparing The Slug & Lettuce to Wagamama*. Pre-pandemic, if you popped to The Slug for some lunch and a drink, you knew it was going to be quick, probably breaded, definitely fried or microwaved and cheap. Lunch at The Slug is an honest celebration of 2-for-£10, sticky tables and beige-ness. It’s why you go and you know what you are getting. Wagamama, on the other hand, is a let down. It claims to offer an authentic, Japanese-inspired experience. Ha. I call bovine-faeces. Sharing seating with strangers and pretending it’s all part of the vibe when traditional ramen joints have limited (and often solo) seating. No thanks. Charging a tear-jerking fortune for what is considered a quick, humble meal. No thanks. In this comparison, other easy-read books echo The Slug because they own it. A Court of Silver Flames, on the other hand, is Wagamama: all branding, promise and delusions but very little substance or delivery.
(* other pub chains and restaurants are available)
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
I listened to The Cruel Prince straight after I finished A Court of Silver Flame. Well, what a contrast. Maas thinks she’s subverting fantasy genre conventions, breaking gender stereotypes and depicting realistic trauma and recovery. Then Black comes along and shows her how it’s done. Boom.
In Black’s world, the faerie folk are sexy, sure, but they’re dangerous, corrupt and cruel – and they embrace these natures. The protagonist, Jude, is well aware of this. I really like how the differences between humans and the creatures of the faerie world aren’t just based on appearance but also on personality, motivations, behaviour and attitude.
Someone recommended The Cruel Prince to me a while ago and it’s been sitting in my Audible account for well over a year. I assumed, particularly after reading Maas’ most recent book, that it would be a typical YA, fantasy, girl-loves-bad-boy novel and had braced myself for disappointing mediocrity. Nope. It’s brilliant! The politics, scheming, murder, back story, societal structures all provide a rich and engaging narrative. Sure, there are elements of the book which firmly root it in YA, such as Jude trying to find her place and purpose in the world, but the character development, intricate plot and skilled descriptions make it a pretty epic read. Some of the twists are more obvious than others but there’s sufficient cleverness that it had me hooked throughout.
Something is up with the Audible recording – the sound quality kept changing to the extent I was convinced they’d changed the narrator. Apparently it was the same person so that was odd. I’ll be reading eBook versions of the rest of the books in the series to avoid this.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
It’s a clever concept. It’s reassuring. It’s uplifting. And yet it might not be a good fit for everybody and that’s ok.
The Midnight Library is like one giant what-if exercise. It cautions against thinking there are perfect choices, or holding tight to unfulfilled regrets, or believing you’re the main factor in other people’s misery or misfortune.
I felt better for reading it. It resonated with me and kept echoing once I was done… a bit like the impact I felt from reading “The Travelling Cat Chronicles” by Hiro Arikawa. They definitely share a feeling even though they’re utterly different.
I am weak willed. I am pandemic-bored. I am reasonably materialistic.
Not a great combination when other PhD students show off their bits and bobs in PhD Forum, Virtual Writing Retreat (VWR) or on Twitter. This blog is dedicated to the online purchases I’ve made over the last 6 months because I’ve coveted something a peer has shown me. You know who you are!
Please note, many-many-many-many more items have been purchased but I cannot blame my fellow academics for those.
There is always talk of cake and sweet treats whenever I’m in PhD Forum or VWR. Some of my online chums are excellent pâtisserie chefs, one resides next to or above a pastry shop and others live with excessive-baking mums! I am a terrible baker but my wife is pretty good. This is less of a purchase, unless you count the ingredients, and more beg my wife to make something out of sugary buttery jealousy.
Someone (and he knows who he is) lives very near a fromagerie. Following his on-camera show ‘n’ tell of very fresh, very smelly, cheesy goodness, I ordered a box of cheeses for Christmas. It’s March now and I think we still have a smidgen left in the fridge.
So I’m not entirely sure it’s fair to blame this on my PhD chums as I bought it for a friend’s Zoomified birthday last November. But, it has certainly had more outings in study spaces since then: PhD submissions, new jobs, birthdays. I really want a tiara made from stationery items…
We’re not fussy – we drink Prosecco, Cava or Champagne. Not a fan of Asti. And yes, much to the chagrin of an American study buddy, it often arrives via Amazon.
It’s an anti-procrastination app that keeps you from faffing on your phone or, if you use the Chrome extension, from surfing on your laptop when you should be working. In simplest terms, you plant trees and shrubs, if you use your phone, you kill the tree. Added bonus is that you can plant in groups with the fear of killing your study buddies’ trees. You can turn off the killing mode but the idea is to be accountable. There’s also an option to save and buy a real tree that’s planted somewhere in the world. Obviously, as a materialistic fool, I spend most of my coins buying pretty trees for the app. And I procrastinate about growing themed forests… so, oops.
I definitely think one of our PhD chums gets a cut from Forest App purchases because she’s super prompt with the sales pitch whenever someone new to the group asks what’s going on… You know who you are.
I made the mistake of sharing Brian Tracey’s take on an old adage with PhD Forum and VWR chums: “If the first thing you do when you wake up each morning is eat a live frog, nothing worse can happen for the rest of the day!” Tracey advises that your “frog” is the most difficult task on your to do list. It could be the biggest or the most complicated or the most challenging.
Anyway, the idea stuck. Really stuck. And suddenly we were all talking about frogs and tasks – sorry to the person who has ranidaphobia and was suffering in silence for weeks!
Around the same time, I started a Kanban board to organise my PhDing so I also grabbed some frog notelets to indicate those kinds of tasks. If I recall, this caused another study buddy to start a similar search which led to some confusing and unpleasant sexy frog images.
What do you do when you’re bored in the house and your in the house bored? (TikTok reference for the youngsters, there). You cut yourself a fringe/bangs. Because why not.
It didn’t go too badly but turns out fringes/bangs = a lot of hard work and maintenance. Also, fringes/bangs are not very compliant. Half the time I look like Alison Steadman from “Abigail’s Party” (definitely not a reference for the youngsters). Also, I can’t make headbands work without looking like I’m stuck in the 90s.
This PhD Forum inspired item is a headband/bandana/face covering hybrid. It’s so easy to use that even I can wear it.
Yup, this one is genius. It’s like a personalised electric blanket, perfect for all us poor folks stuck working at home in Dickensian conditions. Several study buddies have these so I can’t point the blame squarely at an individual. To be fair, they’re so effective, my wife demanded one too.
Someone declared it was World Sleep Day on Friday 19th March so it was decided that we would all work in PJs or onesies. It meant I had to get some new PJs because all of mine are some sort of combo of trashed T-shirts and holey-leggings.
PANDA HOODIE BLANKET
A lot of my PhD chums have onesies. One of them has a veritable collection worthy of its own catalogue and accession numbers. As a curvy person, I struggle to find onesies to fit but I have acute onesie envy. This beast is an oversized hoodie-blanket, with soft lining, and shaped like a panda. What’s not to love?
When a study buddy sends you beautiful calligraphy of your name, it is simply the law that you must turn it into items you can use on a daily basis.
Well, Rocketbook sales have definitely rocketed this weekend. Badaboom.
I’m not the only PhDer who wishes they could afford a Remarkable2 – but not only are they astronomical (haha – did it again) in price, they also have a delivery waiting time of months and months. The Rocketbook, according to a study buddy who we suspect is on commission, is a cheaper alternative. It lets you write and rewrite over the same pages, scans them into an app, sends them off to email / Google Drive / One Drive / Dropbox and so on.
It only arrived yesterday but I’m enjoying trying it out. I already had a dozen or so Frixion pens at home, which are needed for their erasable qualities, because I have a stationery problem. I may have mentioned that already?
Oh, how I wish I’d been shown the ways of multiple monitors a long time ago. It has cut down on my printing and crossed-eyes-ness when dealing with data. I do frequently lose things because I can’t find my mouse on either screen. Or I’ll be looking at my conf call but not at the camera, appearing somewhat disconnected to the poor people I’m meeting. But I’m slowly getting the hang of it.
I also like to call these wife-cancelling headphones. Actually, I needed these so desperately, I made my wife buy them and paid her back when my student loan appeared. Sharing an office at home is somehow harder than an open plan office at work. I think it’s probably because we project our voices more (well, one of us does) when trying to be heard over Zoom* instead of the general chatter in an office.
* other conf call software is available
I haven’t named any specific study buddies in this list but I’m sure some of you will recognise yourselves. That said, in March 2021 alone, one of you requires a special mention.
Two months in a row and sticking to my resolution to keep up with fiction reading. Yay me.
Let’s ignore that it’s already March and I didn’t notice or remember to hit post… and that I only finished two books in February.
This Golden Flame by Emily Victoria
This Golden Flame is an excellent debut novel that blends humanity, machine and magic. Essentially, a group of characters – with slightly different agendas – is thrown together by happenstance. They unite to take down a corrupt leader.
Through Alix, an automaton, Victoria explores what defines a person in a manner that is accessible and interesting. Alix’s existential crisis reflects the human condition and will resonate with the novel’s target YA audience.
Victoria refreshingly avoids romantic entanglements between the narrators, Alix and Karis. The book passes the Bechdel test with top marks! I didn’t pick up that Alix and Karis are depicted as asexual until after I’d completed the book, when I read more about the it. Frankly, it works whichever way the reader interprets the characters. Equally pleasing was Victoria’s matter-of-fact approach to inclusion and representation. Different cultures, faiths (if scriptwork is imagined that way), classes, sexualities and genders are effectively woven together as part of the characterisation and the plot.
The dual narrative was tricky… The voices of Alix and Karis aren’t distinctly different so the split first-person narrative seems unnecessary. Maybe this was deliberate – showing how Karis is different to other people and how similar Alix is to her? But then it feels like the narration often focuses on internalisation and perhaps misses the chance to depict Tallis and Valitia more convincingly. Victoria is clearly a skilled writer and I’d have enjoyed more time with her world building. Moreover, the book feels like it has three protagonists: Alix, Karis and Dane. Despite this, only two narrative perspectives are included.
Really, that’s my only gripe. Unless you count wishing it was longer so I could find out more about Zara and her crew! There was so much to enjoy about This Golden Flame. I look forward to Victoria’s future work.
The SupremeLie by Geraldine McCaughrean
McCaughrean writes across the spectrum, for children, teens, young adults and those of us who no longer belong in this category; it’s one of the many reasons I admire her as a seasoned and skilled writer. The Supreme Lie fits comfortably somewhere within the YA bracket. In terms of genre, however, I’m at a loss. Drama, certainly, with splashes of fantasy, dystopia, political intrigue and adventure. It feels art deco in period but simultaneously very modern. I’ve found this with McCaughrean in the past – she frequently straddles genres and styles with impressive grace.
In essence, the country’s leader ‘does a bunk’ when unprecedented floods bring chaos to a region. To hide the leader’s cowardice, her husband hatches a plot to pretend the leader is still present by dressing up the 15 year old maid, Gloria. As you can imagine, the situation gets pretty fraught. It’s quite Shakespearean – think Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure.
Having read other reviews – after finishing the book – I can see some readers have criticised McCaughrean for being a little bizarre or far-fetched. First, the bizarre is a characteristic I always enjoy in McCaughrean’s work. In The Supreme Lie, we are often treated to the perspective of Heinz, a loyal dog. His adventure, trials and worries during the flood are expressed through his internal monologue. It’s beautiful – not bizarre – to see canine loyalty given so much page. In terms of being far-fetched… pffft. I’d argue that having watched the last American administration coupled with having experienced the handling of 2020-2021 (stares hard at 10 Downing Street), McCaughrean has sculptured a plausible political landscape. Scheming public servants, environmental crisis, mass media scare-mongering, biased news reporting, power grabbiness and dis/mis-information: what’s far-fetched about that?!
Overall, it’s funny and dark. Often, for young people such as Gloria, the solutions to real world issues appear simple. McCaughrean illuminates that this isn’t the case but that decisions made with a strong moral compass will always be preferable to those steered by corruption.