Recent Reviews

A couple of new reviews up in the Book Reviews section, both of which I can highly recommend.

If you are interested in Young Adult fiction and want a truly intelligent read that is unafraid of experimenting with form and narrative, I strongly suggest you check out ‘The Weight of Water’ by Sarah Crossan.  Click the image below for a link to the full review.


One of the best books I’ve read this year, ‘This Magnificent Desolation’ by Thomas O’Malley deserves to be read.  It’s wonderfully atmospheric fiction.  Again, click the link below for a full review.



Science on Sunday

4823926748_704b8f5f51_bTales from the Frontline: Rationale

What makes a scientist?  On the surface, it seems like a simple question.  I imagine a lot of people, in and out of the scientific field, think that good postgraduate scientists come up through the traditional path of school specialisation, degrees and not much deviation from the well-trodden route.  When you’re on the outside, graduate science can seem like an impentrable field that ‘other people’ do but that is inaccessible to ‘people like you’.  It’s an easy trap to fall into.  If you come from a background devoid of PhDs, with nary a Dr in sight, then academic science can appear to be a foreign country with strict visa regulations.  It would certainly have changed my whole academic path, had I had educators when I was younger who made it clear how accessible postgraduate study was.  I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that they themselves weren’t privy to the inside view on this kind of life.  I have a strong belief that higher education should be accessible to all who have the ability, regardless of background.  It’s an easy thing to write but a harder goal to achieve.  PhDs can seem so lofty from the outside that many potentially good candidates don’t regard themselves as such because they have an unrealistic view of what is required to complete one.  I’m not implying that PhDs are something everyone can or should do but I want everyone to be able to consider them as a potential option, to be dismissed for real reasons, rather than to never consider them at all because they seem like something other people do.  I know that real stories of lab work and of the path that people took into science bore the responsibility for setting me on the road I’m still working on.  I know that once I made it past the invisible barrier and into the lab, the barriers to higher study seemed to disappear because it became evident I could do it equally as well as many people I worked alongside as a technician.  So, in the hope of dispelling the myths of separation that science sometimes upholds, I am going to use this weekly spot to tell you some of my scientific history and a little bit of what I do every day in the lab.  I hope that someone might read this and think, ‘You know what?  I can do that too.’

The Press Box: MMR

So, this week’s news is all about MMR again.  I’m a parent.  I’m a scientist.  I vaccinate.  When the media start to tell me I shouldn’t, I go to the academic source papers and I read the actual experimental reports before deciding how much I should trust that advice.  That means I was likely one of the few people outside of the direct medical community that read the original Wakefield paper that caused this situation in the first place.  I was unimpressed, either with his credentials or with the science that was described there, for many reasons.  Most of these failings of the work, alongside Wakefield’s conflict of interest, have been discussed now (better late than never) elsewhere and I’m not going to rehash them here.  What did surprise me is that the science journalists who originally reported the spurious linkage between vaccinations and autism, the people on whom the general public were reliant when it came to dissemination of data, appeared either to have bypassed reading the original paper, taking instead the Wakefield tainted press release as a basis for their story, or to have completely misunderstood the fairly glaring failings of the work presented there.  Again though, the quality of front page science journalism is most eloquently taken to task by others and it is not my aim to make war on that here.

What I have noticed though, is the tendency to demonise the parents who chose not to vaccinate their children, to imply they are deficient or rather dumb for making a decision that many people who understand the science realise is wrong.  In a case of mea culpa, I sometimes have to stop myself from getting angry with them too, after all, when vaccinations do not always induce immunity, the herd immunity of the population that these non-vaccinating parents are endangering also endangers my child or future children should measles become prevalent again.  Then I take a step back and give myself a strong talking-to.  What I’ve learnt from parenthood is that you spend an awful lot of your time in a state of fear and anxiety over the health of your offspring.  We are not a rational bunch.  Being a scientist and in possession of a library e-journal collection, I channel that into research about potential dangers.  I wouldn’t expect other people to do that.  I had measles as a child and having suffered it and studied it as a disease, I’m fully aware of the dangers it poses.  For many parents with no memory of it as a common condition, it seems no more dangerous than a case of chicken pox.  Combine that with irresponsible press reportage and you have an anxiety time bomb.  I don’t think that we can blame parents for believing the stories that papers print.  Maybe not now, after this MMR scare has seen the light of day, but certainly before then, science journalism was seen as wielding authority, I think.  It’s not a fair assessment to blame parents for not questioning the headlines they read coming from people who, I’m sure, they thought were more qualified than they were to comment on this subject.  It is fair to blame the editors who hire these journalists and pass their work for publication for not questioning the headlines but instead launching them onto front page news space.  There are a lot of exceptional science journalists out there but MMR shows that often the voice of science is not the exceptional but the most headline-grabbing.  In a week when a respected broadsheet, The Independent, actually gave Wakefield the front page again, treating him as if he had a valid opinion on this and was not the discredited, ethically-tainted individual he really is, I think it is a good time to remind the mainstream news media that they have a responsibility to accurately and critically report science rather than to sensationalise it for front page headlines.  The news media didn’t cause the MMR debacle.  It was a perfect storm of events.  It did fan the waves and make them higher and it cannot be absolved of this responsibility if we are to prevent another ‘MMR’.

Book Reviews: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good:
Bad Science
Bad Pharma
The Double Helix

The Bad:
The Virus Hunters

The Ugly:
Farmer Buckley’s Exploding Trousers

This Week in Books

I’ve had the plague this week.  Well, potentially the plague.  Or possibly a small case of the sniffles.  Whatever the diagnosis, it was not conducive to a lot of reading or reviewing so I only managed to finish a couple of books and review them on the site:


Notes from a Coma was a Netgalley download – I wasn’t sure what to expect of this one but it neither entirely excited nor disappointed.  Click on the image for the full review.

Them: Adventures with Extremists was one of my random audiobook shots in the dark.  I am forever grateful to Jen at Devourer of Books for introducing me to audiobooks.  I genuinely don’t know what I used to fill all those wasted hours of shopping, car journeys, lab work or housework with before I found audiobooks.  Click on the image for a full review of my latest.

The Landscape of Literature

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In wild places, I find it easier to breathe.  For some people the warmth of city concrete, sustained by the energy of a thousand footfalls, feeds their needs but for me it is wild places.  I can write in wild places.  It gives me the space to hear my thoughts without competition from life.  I think this is why I am so attracted to literature where landscape is brought alive and allowed to sing.

Two of my favourite books are ones where landscape plays a strong role in defining the atmosphere of the story.  A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (reviewed here) is Norman Maclean’s retelling of the events of the summer of 1937, the last summer his family spends together intact before a tragic event that forever marks them.  I grew up in rural England, among boys who fished so I have an affinity for those who treat it like a religion, although all I remember of it was the odd dingy afternoon alongside an English canal, spent with little enthusiasm for the task at hand.  I can imagine, though, how different it would be in the wilds of Montana in a bygone age.  This is eased by Maclean’s beautiful prose.  Whilst the story is very much centred on the family themselves, the landscape they live in is inseparable and this is conveyed so well.

The second novel, A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash (reviewed here) is a contemporary novel but one that has an equally well-envisaged landscape – this time small community life in the mountains of North Carolina.  Cash, much like Maclean, manages to effortlessly recreate the landscape of his home region and in it, finds a home for the cast of characters who seem to have lived there for generations although we only enter their world for a short time.  The similarities to Maclean’s work are not obvious but they are there nonetheless.  Both these novels deal with issues of religion but in completely different ways.  As an agnostic scientist who borders on atheist but for the fact that I apply scientific method and norms even to my non-belief, I wonder why so often religion in literature pairs so well with landscape.  Certainly, it is tempting to marry internal and external landscapes in a novel and wild places have a grandeur that lends itself to religious comparison.  The wild can bring a sense of peace.  I don’t link this with religious serenity but I can understand that others may and this could explain the subconscious linkage that occurs so often in writing.

Finding a really well-written landscape in a novel is a rarity.  Finding a novelist whose connection with a place is so strong that it enables them to bring it to life without artifice in a text is like discovering diamonds in a kimberlite deposit; a first novel like A Land More Kind Than Home has marked Wiley Cash as a rich vein of language that I want to mine deeper.  For Maclean, unfortunately, the stock of writing is finite – he died in 1990 leaving  very little more than the pieces in A River Runs Through It and Other Stories.  I think to truly write a landscape, to paint with your pen that which others craft with oils and brushes on canvas, an author has to love the landscape unconditionally.  Much like a parent and child, a strong connection with the land can be an unconditional bond that nourishes and supports you.  Those that understand that have the ability to see beyond the conventional wisdoms of society, freeing them to use language inventively to express this to readers.  Often there is a musicality about the language of landscape – a balance and sense of rightness that defies criticism.  These authors frequently translate this ability to vivid descriptions of the internal landscape of their characters, bringing them alive with great skill.

Finding wild places isn’t always easy.  They disappear between the demands of a working life and it is all too easy to forget to take the time to rediscover them – hidden, sometimes, in the overgrown corner of a village garden or flying with a pair of kites over an exposed ridge on a crisp autumn morning with a frost on the air.  I will always be grateful to the Landscape of Literature for reminding me they are there.

Seamus Heaney and Why We Write

I’ve been picking up my poetry collections recently and dipping in – something I promised myself I’d do more of this057109024901_sx140_sclzzzzzzz_ year.  They’ve followed me everywhere and I find that there’s a comforting feeling coming back to my old favourites, like visiting old friends you haven’t seen for a while.  A love of poetry is something I had instilled in me from a young age, growing up in a house where poetry books were always available, encouraged always by the wonderful use of language in this written form, and (for better or worse) it has been something that I have always written myself.  This led me down the path of considering why people write.

I find it much easier to explain why I read: stimulation, excitement, transportation to distant worlds, distant lands, acquisition of knowledge, the sound of words, their interplay … the list is endless.  For someone, however, who has written in some form or another all their life, from diaries to blogs, homemade newspapers to cyber-reviews, childhood illustrated books (a wordsmith I may have been from a young age, an illustrator I am not but my Mum appreciated them) to more substantial adult writing, it is much harder to elucidate reasons.  It’s what I do, I never really remember a time when I didn’t and the notion of stopping is inconceivable.  The vast majority of my writing has not been written for an audience – heaven knows, I’d be mortified if some of my teenage diary entries came to light!  I write to think, to reason and to order things in my head.  What happens to these when I’m dead and gone is of minimal importance, it is the act of writing that initiates catharsis not the eventual product.  I blog now, something quite different from anything my thirteen-year-old self could have envisaged as I dutifully kept stubs of cinema tickets and mementoes folded in the pages of that year’s journal.  I suppose it is the first time I’ve really addressed any form of ‘audience’ in a concrete sense and it is a really rewarding experience.  But it is fiction and poetry that I still really love, the one I miss if time has taken me away from my notebooks for too long, and that is harder to explain the motivation for.  For me, this is rarely something I’ve had the opportunity to share, until the advent of this cyber age at least, but still something I need to write.  I guess inside all people who write, there is a little germ of an idea that it would be great to be able to say ‘occupation author’ or ‘poet’ but it is not the prime motivation.  For poetry especially, but other writing too, it is impossible not to write the words.  There’s a kernel of an idea or a combination of words that begs to be written.  However, writing doesn’t always come easy, while sometimes something has to be voiced, writing about things that don’t inspire, writing what you have to do, these are harder tasks and contain none of the pleasure or release, no matter how efficiently accomplished – a reason I considered and dismissed pursuing a journalistic career when I was younger.

One of my favourite poets, Seamus Heaney (whose use of language, I have to admit, I am just a wee bit in love with), examines his own motivations for writing in the ‘bookend’ poems of his collection ‘Death of a Naturalist’.  In ‘Digging’, Heaney situates his profession as a poet in the context of his family ancestry of manual work: where his father and grandfather dug for potatoes in fresh fertile ground, digging deep to find the best soil, planting something that would grow to feed and sustain people, Heaney follows in their footsteps, wielding his pen, digging inside himself.  I particularly like the lines:

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it

From ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966)

His pen is as much a tool as the spade his father uses, our expectation of what he will find as real as the expectation of bounty when you raise a potato root and hope to see it full of promise.  Inherent in this is a sense of the unknown and the unspoilt, expectant promise that exists at the moment a writer’s pen hovers above the blank page, in this moment anything is possible.

Heaney revisits the introspective on his writing motivation in the final poem of the collection, ‘Personal Helicon’.  This is one of my favourite poems, I love the imagery of the well, the onomatopoeic language and rich descriptives.  What resonates is the concept of the draw of an empty page, of the act of writing, of the essence of peering into the shielded darkness, unsure of what is below.  I will leave you with the final verse, one of the most evocative images of the motivation and compulsion to write that I have come across and ask you to consider how far it applies to you:

Now, to pry into roots, to finger slime,
To stare big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring
Is beneath all adult dignity. I rhyme
To see myself, to set the darkness echoing.

From ‘Personal Helicon’ by Seamus Heaney in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ (1966)

Banned Books – An Emotive Issue

I’ve been working on a project library on LibraryThing with some other members, Banned Books Library, which aims to catalogue as many banned publications, past and present, worldwide as possible.  It’s been an educational experience thus far for me.  What has surprised me more than anything is that there seems to be a strong contemporary history of challenge within the USA, whereas for the UK, for example, much of the information is historical.  I wondered why, in this modern age in a country that is vociferous about it’s love of freedom (hello, anyone remember the ‘Freedom Fries’?), there is a vocal demographic that find literary censorship so acceptable.

Often I know, these challenges come from parents who want books removed from libraries and schools.  It left me wondering, as a parent myself, where I stand on the whole issue of literary freedom and availability to youngsters.  I can safely say that my parents never forbade me from reading anything I was interested in and I hope I can maintain that principle with my own daughter.  It’s hard, I know, when children become independent entities in the world – you cannot control absolutely the external influences and opinions that your children will be exposed to.  However, neither, in my opinion, should you.  I’m fully aware that my issues would be different ones to the majority of parents in the US challenging books.  I would have a problem with my child being exposed to any kind of religious literature if it was presented as fact – I’m happy for her to explore religions (well, maybe not happy, but I accept that she must understand about the beliefs of others, it’s the first step to respecting their right to have them), but I consider the Bible a dangerous fiction and would not want others to portray it as an historical document.  I have no intention of policing age-appropriateness of what she reads, but would probably not suggest myself that she picks up something with extremely adult themes before she is older.  That said, if she does, I wouldn’t just take it away.  I may suggest something that she would enjoy more and I’m hoping that growing up in a house choc-full of books, as I myself did, she will come to more adult material as she is ready for it.  I was always kept occupied by the wealth of books that were in my house, there wasn’t enough time for all of them so I rarely strayed into inappropriate ground.  These are my own, personal views.  I would never tell someone else how they should police and raise their own children.  That is one of the reasons why I find parents who challenge books irritating.  If you don’t want your child to read Harry Potter, don’t let them but please don’t try and force institutions into removing them from the shelves where my child can access them – I would never ask a public library to restrict access to their bibles.  For me, the crux is that I want my child to grow into an independent and thoughtful person, she doesn’t always have to agree with me, but I think you instill your own values in children as you raise them and must trust in them to find their own paths.

‘What’s the harm in banning a book?’  I’ve actually heard people say that, alongside others that find some banning acceptable (‘Well, Harry Potter’s ridiculous, but I can understand why they’ve removed that gay sex book’).  Banning books at all is a slippery slope.  If you look at the recent lists of banned and challenged books, many are challenged for religious reasons (often cited as promoting witchcraft or being anti-religion).  The same parents that find Philip Pullman’s books so offensive or that object to Harry Potter haven’t also requested that ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ be removed – obviously when it is a Christian allegory it’s OK.  If it questions that, best get it out of the clutches of our impressionable youth.  It appears all religions are not equal in all cases.  So, where do we draw the line.  It’s obviously one opinion pitted against another.  Who is qualified to mark the arbitrary point where something becomes unacceptable?

Many other books are challenged because they have content which touches on homosexuality, something a certain demographic doesn’t like.  To challenge and remove these books elevates a section of our society at the expense of marginalising another – it sends a message that it’s acceptable to attach value judgements to who people are.  That is as daft as saying we’re going to remove any books that have references to people who are not blond-haired and blue-eyed as they are the chosen few (hmm, I wonder which historical period decided that blond hair and blue-eyes denoted superiority ….).  What struck me as I catalogued past banning was how ridiculous some of the reasons seemed in the present day, how ignorant and outdated – surely people will look back at this period with similar scorn a 100 years in the future.  Another reason cited was that of racism, especially appended to books which dealt with or were written in a period of time when there were issues of slavery and race-discrimination.  Surely it is more educational to teach these books (some of which are great members of the literary canon) in the context of the political and social arena they were published into and born from?

Essentially for me, freedom of speech and ideas is a cornerstone of our society and to give away any of it, even by increments, begins the slide to restriction that more abhorrent political regimes have gone down before us (check out the amount of banning that took place in countries such as South Africa and Russia in the past).  I am a reader, I love books so they, for me, are the ultimate symbol of my freedom to think, learn and debate.  Take away books (and other forms of writing) and people have to physically come in contact with someone to exchange ideas.  I don’t always agree with what I read, but I want the ability to read it.  Take that away from me and I am intellectually crippled to a degree.  As I said in the title, an emotive issue.  Whatever your stance on it, I can recommend that you check out the Banned Books Library on LibraryThing, it’s a work-in-progress but a very educational one!

E-Books, E-Readers, Kindles and the like …

So, it being Monday and me having nothing better to occupy my mind … I was considering the whole Kindle issue.  Let’s contextualise this a bit first – I’m an iPod freak.  I never leave home without it and the more songs I can cram onto it the better!  I have bought music online in digital format and I listen to my CDs more on the pod than I do on the stereo.  I love having my music library to browse through wherever I am.  So, I find I’m asking why am I not so excited about the advent of a digital age for books?  Thus far, I’ve come up with several potential reasons for this.  Primarily, I love books – not the words inside them, but the physical books.  I fondle books and I smell books.  I get excited (in a geeky way) about the quality of paper and the type of font.  But why should this put me off ebook readers?  My husband has an equally geeky attachment to CDs but as soon as he gets a new one, it gets grabbed and stacked onto the pod.  What about the experience of reading?  Definitely that’s part of it, I like holding a book and I love bookmarks.  However, the Kindle age would mean that I wouldn’t need to carry a backpack full of them around, I could take an e-reader on the daily commute and save the shoulder muscles.  Why, then, am I not rushing out to Kindle-ise my life?  I’ve come to the conclusion the flaw is in the essential difference between books and CDs in the digital age.  I have 1000+ books and we have 1000+ CDs.  When I got my first iPod, I spent an enjoyable weekend grabbing all my CDs and installing my music collection on the little beauty.  How would I spend the first weekend with a Kindle?  Well, I guess that would be sitting on Amazon spending money I didn’t have, buying books I already own in digital format.  This would never work for me.  My iPod is an addition to my music collection – I can still own the physical CDs.  With Kindles and the like, I have to make a choice – be digital or paper or I have to buy books twice.  I can’t spend a weekend grabbing my library, it doesn’t work that way.  I can’t enjoy reading the original copy of a book and use the Kindle for my long distance travel or weeks away.  The difference in media, music vs words, means that it will never be practical to grab your book collection.  This is why I’ll never be a Kindle convert.  What about the rest of you out there?