Queen of Science: Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville

By Mary Somerville

Rating: 3 stars

I’m finding it difficult to sum this book up. Despite the author being intimately familiar with science, particularly maths and astronomy, this very definitely isn’t a science book. It doesn’t even really talk very much about the difficulties Somerville faced in her studies and in being accepted in the scientific world, despite an unsympathetic family and first husband in her youth.

What it is, is a very interesting portrait of a fairly well-to-do British family in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the kind of family that can hobnob with royalty and popes (Mary Somerville recounts meeting at least two) and spend their year wandering around Europe, staying with wealthy families on country estates for months on end. At one point, it is mentioned that the Somervilles do lose the bulk of their fortune, but there are no details, and it doesn’t seem to make that much difference to their lives.

Somerville is quite the scientific pioneer, in her translation and popular science writing work, and she mentions being granted honorary and associate membership of many scientific bodies. I felt it was entirely unfair that these memberships weren’t full (because the bodies at the time didn’t allow women to be members), but Somerville herself never mentions the point at all. I don’t know what she’d make of the fact that she’s going to feature on the £10 note from the Royal Bank of Scotland from 2017.

She was a life-long liberal (and, indeed, Liberal-with-a-capital-L), and very fond of animals, putting her name to various attempts in Italy (where she spent most of the later part of her life) to create legislative protection for them. In other ways, she perhaps wouldn’t be considered liberal to modern eyes, being firmly behind the adventure of empire, believing it to be “civilising” to the native peoples, and lamenting the fact that black men were given the vote before white women. We can’t be too harsh on her, as these were attitudes that were very difficult to avoid in the era that she lived, and for her time, she was indeed a very progressive person.

Somerville wrote her memoirs in the last few years of her life, and they were edited and published by her daughter after her death. This isn’t that book; the current editor has taken the published text, along with the original manuscripts of the various drafts and drawn together a new text synthesising all of the above (clearly labelling parts of the text that were drawn from the manuscripts). This is a very interesting insight into the editing process, looking at what Somerville and, then her daughter, felt fit to include or exclude.

So an interesting sketch of a particular part of a society that is now distant from us in time and attitudes, but not exactly a salacious warts ‘n’ all autobiography.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841951362
Publisher: Canongate UK
Year of publication: 1973

Glasgow: Mapping the City

By John N. Moore

Rating: 4 stars

Doing exactly what it says on the tin, this book has a carefully curated range of maps of Glasgow, selected to show interesting developments in the city, from the tapping of the Molendinar Burn, through the heyday of shipping on the Clyde to the Glasgow Garden Festival. The range of maps shows changes in the physical shape of the city, as it grows and expands, especially to the south and west; and changes to the social make up of the city too, charting policemen’s beats, the spread of disease and the locations of post offices. The range of maps is immense, covering the city’s history from myriad angles.

The text that goes along with the maps is clear and well-researched. Moore usually provides some information on the map makers as well as details of what is being shown and, where he can, providing wider social context.

This is an absolutely gorgeous book (albeit one that’s too big to comfortably hold easily) with high-resolution reproductions of the maps on good quality, glossy paper. Generally each map is accorded four pages: a full-page close up of some detail on the map, and then the text over the next three pages, with the full-size map and often other close ups as well. More than once, I wished that I had a magnifying glass so that I could zoom into the detail.

It seems that mapping of Glasgow started comparatively late. Despite a blurry manuscript dating from 1596, and several naval charts of the Clyde, the first plan map of the city in the book is dated as late as 1764. The bulk of the book is taken up with maps from the 19th century, as the city of Glasgow exploded in size during the industrial revolution, with comparatively few in the 20th, although the ones that were there were fascinating, especially the post WW1 plan for “homes for heroes”, the German map that could have been used in a land invasion of Britain and the radical post-war plan that would have completely reshaped the city, if it had ever been implemented.

For anyone interested in Glasgow’s history and development, this is a fascinating book to browse through. I’ve come to love Glasgow over the years that I’ve lived here, and this book is a wonderful way to experience its history in a very visual way.

Book details

ISBN: 9781780273198
Publisher: Birlinn

Big Money

By P.G. Wodehouse

Rating: 5 stars

To try and explain the plot of this book would make it sound complicated and unfunny, neither of which is really true, but I couldn’t do it justice. Let’s just say that it has one or more of the following elements: the peerage, the suburbs, fiancés, love at first sight, formidable aunts, an old copper mine and a dyspeptic millionaire.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s got a different tone to the Jeeves books, but it really came together for me. The protagonists, Lord “Biscuit” Biskerton and John Beresford “Berry” Conway are very likeable and even (gasp) competent, if in that slightly potty upper-class way that Wodehouse could capture so well. There are fiancés by the handful (and Wodehouse’s fiancés usually are a handful), misunderstandings, plots, crosses, double crosses, and much fun to be had by all.

Wodehouse’s batting average is still incredibly high with me and whilst I may just be easily pleased, it’s funny, light of touch and marvellously easy to read. Both a great entry point to the world of Wodehouse and a fine addition to the collection of an existing fan.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099514220
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1931

Lumberjanes: To the Max Edition, Vol. 1

By Noelle Stevenson

Rating: 4 stars

The Lumberjanes camp is a girls’ scouting-type camp (officially Miss Qiunzella Thiskwin Penniquiqual Thistle Crumpet’s Camp For Hardcore Lady Types) and this adorable story follows the occupants of Roanoke cabin and the decidedly supernatural goings-on that happen around them. I loved the characters here: the gang themselves are fantastic, each with their own very distinct personality as well as the cabin scout-leader, Jen and the enigmatic but awesome camp director, Rosie.

The art style of the comic is quite cartoony but it suits it down to the ground. It’s also clear, distinctive and very readable. The comic has very strong themes of friendship and loyalty, the camp’s motto, after all, is “Friendship to the max”, and it’s something that the girls take very seriously. Right from the start, it’s clear they’re already close friends (or closer, in the case of Mal and Molly) and this bond develops over the course of the book, as their lives, their relationships and their friendship are tested again and again.

Obviously, given the title, the protagonists and most of the characters in the book are female and it’s wonderful to see such good characters and such good role models. I can’t wait until my niece (and my nephew, come to that) is older so that I can introduce her to this.

Finally, a word on the book itself: this beautiful hardcover edition collects the whole of the original eight-issue mini-series and is a lovely thing in its own right to hold, with glossy paper and vibrant colours. Since the series has gone monthly, they are collected in paperbacks and also more of these “to the max” editions, which are similar to “deluxe” editions of series such as Saga or Rat Queens.

(4.5 stars)

Book details

ISBN: 9781608868094
Publisher: BOOM! Box
Year of publication: 2014

The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island

By Bill Bryson

Rating: 2 stars

I loved Notes From a Small Island, and I desperately wanted to love this as well. There are flashes of brilliance, and Bryson is still an excellent travel writer when he’s got something to talk about, but so much of this book comes across as a curmudgeonly old man railing at change and bewildered by the modern world. Partly, you’d expect something like this from the former president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England but partly it comes across as just mean-spirited (for example, an anecdote about how Bryson helped a young worker in a bookshop deal with a mentally ill patient is spoiled by her dismissal as “four foot nothing and practically spherical”).

Supposedly, Bryson is roughly following his imaginary “Bryson Line” (the furthest you could travel in a straight line across Great Britain without crossing salt water), but he meanders so much that the line is pretty much worthless. He also spends most of his time in the south of England; Wales and Scotland are dismissed with a single chapter each and the north of England gets a handful towards the end of the book.

There are still the amusing asides and historical anecdotes for which much of Bryson’s writing is famed, but this is most definitely not vintage Bryson. I wonder if this is explained when he says in the prologue that his publisher has been trying to get him to write a sequel to Notes From a Small Island for years. Is this a book that Bryson just didn’t really want that much to write, but felt pressured into it? I wouldn’t bother with this, stick with Notes From a Small Island or Down Under if you want to read good travel writing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780552779838
Publisher: Black Swan
Year of publication: 2015

Fables from the Fountain

By Ian Whates

Rating: 4 stars

I’m a fan of the sort of rambling shaggy dog story that Arthur C. Clarke told very well in Tales from the White Hart and loved this tribute to that. Ian Whates has assembled quite the collection of authors to contribute to his anthology, all of whom were as fond of those old stories as I am. The stories themselves range from very White Hart-ian shaggy dog stories, complete with puntastic punchlines to more horrific fare to good old fashioned super-science SF. I would have liked to see more women involved, although Liz Williams’ story is fun (and gives some back story to barmaid Bogna).

My favourite stories were probably Stephen Baxter’s Transients which tells of a stranger brought into the usual group at the Fountain who tells a very particular story, before disappearing again; A Bird in the Hand by Charles Stross, which brings some women to the group and is one of shaggier dog stories in the collection; Book Wurms by Andy West about strange things lurking inside books and the strangers who tend them; and The 9,000,000,001st Name of God by Adam Roberts, riffing off the famous Clarke story.

If you’re a fan of the White Hart or Callahan’s or any other of those sorts of collections, you’ll enjoy this one a lot (and I’d certainly like to stop there for a drink, although perhaps avoid the ploughman’s).

Book details

ISBN: 9781907069239
Publisher: Newcon Press
Year of publication: 2011

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