Tag Archives: Non-fiction

Ground Control to Major Tim

Not every country has an astronaut, so it was pretty exciting when we had Tim Peake up there in space. It almost feels like an age since he worked on the International Space Station, but it was only a year or so ago.

Clive Gifford, Ground Control to Major Tim

Here is a picture reference book written by Clive Gifford for fairly young readers, showing what it was like for Major Tim. We ‘all’ knew about his tweeting and performing to the crowds when he was up there, but not everyone knows what else he did.

Or, for that matter, what Tim had to do to get to the kind of situation where he was a contender to go into space in the first place. What work do you do, and how does one train for life in space?

You learn Russian, as you will be working with people from Russia. You have Heston Blumenthal prepare key lime pie for you. You exercise. The photos all look jolly, but I’d take a wild guess and say that it was all hard work. And not entirely without its risks.

This is the kind of book I know little boys will be pointed towards. I’d like to feel that lots of girls will also read about Major Tim. I know I would have loved it as a child. Please do something to interest all children in space!

50 things you should know about space

I said about Raman Prinja’s last book that it had everything you’d want on astronomy for children. This was true, until I came upon his new book, 50 Things You Should Know About Space, which is wonderful and the kind of book every child should have. I believe this even if they’re not into space (how could anyone not be, though?). Yet.

Raman Prinja, 50 Things You Should Know About Space

The Professor of Astrophysics has managed to fill this new book with what has been my life for years now; the Kepler telescope, Goldilocks, exoplanets, the Atacama desert, and so on.

Beginning with some historical facts before moving on to our own Solar system, Raman looks at how to find new worlds, what to find them with, and how to land on a comet, which is the sort of thing that might come in handy one day.

And there are new, even larger large telescopes on the horizon, that will see more and better than the ones used today.

Apparently some of this is rocket science. So much for people who are always saying things are not. Some things simply have to be.

I was so excited about this book that I was wondering who I could pass it on to once I was done with it. I’d like to inspire a small human to take an interest in this kind of thing.

But then I thought, pass it on?

Fling and Sling

Or Fling, Sling and Batter your way to Victory as the full title reads. It’s ‘all you need to know about medieval weaponry.’

What’s more, this ‘book’ written by Philip Steele is as much toy as book, since you can build a working catapult with the 15 model pieces and the two rubber bands. (I like the preciseness of the number of rubber bands…)

Fling, Sling and Batter your way to Victory

It’s actually quite interesting. I learned things I didn’t know before. You know how when you read medieval novels (ones set in those days, rather than being quite that old) and there is fighting, they will mention ‘stuff’? Well, I’m the kind of person who just reads on, not necessarily able to visualise quite how these warriors are fighting each other.

Mobile towers (no, not anything to do with phone reception) and battering rams are both concepts from past reading. And it’s not until now I actually know both what they look like and how they work!

I’m not totally sold on catapults, however, and the trebuchet looks lethal. I know which end of it I’d prefer to be. And ‘storming the breach’ looks much more dangerous than the words suggest.

I suspect that real catapults didn’t depend on rubber bands, either.

This is very hands-on non-fiction reading.

Atlas of Adventures

Atlas of Adventures is a huge – and rather yellow – book, and it’s one I would have read endlessly as a child. I want to believe that there are many children today who would love to pore over a volume like this. I hope that the thirst for information and a wish to learn while you play is as common in the world of Google as it was in the olden days.

Lucy Letherland, Atlas of Adventures

Each page features a new continent, a country or a particular area, with beautiful pictures by Lucy Letherland. There are two ‘main characters,’ a girl and a boy, who travel to all these places and experience something typical in each of them.

I’ve tried to look at both illustrations and activities with a jaundiced eye, aware of the risk of stereotyping, and while I’m sure there will always be a bit of that (if there wasn’t, we’d all be portrayed as identical, and we’re not; equal, yes, the same, no), this looks a fine book to me.

Lucy Letherland, Atlas of Adventures

The choice of where to stop is sometimes obvious, sometimes not. This makes for good variety. I don’t believe that ‘every gaucho wears a poncho’ but I dare say that many do. It’s a typical thing, not a prerequisite for gauchos. Haggis hurling and thermal glass igloos are other interesting facts.

In short, it simply seems like a fun book, and you ought to be able to spend ages looking at the pictures and reading the snippets of facts, over and over again.

The main hurdle I foresee is where to store the atlas. It’s big, and it’s yellow. (I know, the colour makes no difference.) On the other hand, maybe it will be used so much that it won’t need a shelf to crouch on.

Lucy Letherland, Atlas of Adventures

(I took the liberty of borrowing the images from Lucy’s blog.)

Oooh, look at Anne Rooney!

What better way of celebrating National Non-Fiction November could there be but to ‘speak’ to Anne Rooney, and to learn a few new facts about this tireless non-fiction writer, who would scare me witless with her ability were it not for the fact that she is very funny, and very kind.

Anne Rooney

For information, yours is probably the best and most amusing author’s website I’ve come across. And that’s really quite upsetting, for me. Could you possibly give us a very brief summary of who you are, anyway? Feel free to reply with a simple ‘yes.’

Polymath – which is not a mathematical parrot, though both maths and birds are involved. I think I’m a kind of information magpie. I pick out all the shiny, fascinating snippets of fact that float around and try to make them into interesting collages which publishers prefer to call books. That’s not what you meant, is it?

I write stuff – pretty much anything that’s up for being written, really. Fiction for children, and non-fiction for children and adults. I like writing for children best, but it’s hardest. I think on some level I must be deeply stupid in a commercial sense, as I most like writing for children who don’t want to read. Write books for people don’t want books. Yeah. Good plan. And then there’s the me that lives in the Far-from-United State of Domestic Chaos, fails to go to the opera/theatre/cinema often enough, struggles to spend enough time seeing friends, and spends far too many happy hours playing with the local baby and her plastic phoenix and peasant.

I think of you as the mistress of non-fiction writing. Am I right?

Pretty much, I guess. I do tell lies sometimes, though. But if I spend too long writing only fiction I feel ungrounded. There’s only so long you can spend with imaginary people before it gets to you. That’s why so many fiction-writers walk dogs, bake cakes and make changes to their houses – they need to engage with real stuff.

I don’t think you can write non-fiction unless you are genuinely excited by the world and still feel a sense of wonder at discovering new things. People sometimes ask me how they can get into writing non-fiction because they aren’t making enough money doing whatever they are currently doing (usually writing fiction). That’s not really going to work; you might get a couple of book contracts that way, but you won’t be successful (=happy). You might make a living but you won’t make a life.

You have written a very large number of non-fiction books, and I have read only one of them, The Story of Physics. It was very good. In what way is that typical, or not, of your writing?

It’s about half typical, I suppose. It’s atypical in that it’s for adults, whereas most of my books are for children. But it’s typical in that it’s fairly wide-ranging and it has a light, informal tone. What I aim to do in all my books is make interesting information accessible and to show that it’s interesting. That sounds very formal. All my books are, basically, variations on ‘Oooh, look at this!’

And how many books have you written?

Oh dear. I always say ‘about 150’, largely because I gave up keeping a database of them but Amazon was an unreliable guide. I’ve been saying that for a few years, though. My Amazon count has just dropped from about 400 to 198, so I’m going to assume that’s because they have stopped counting duplicates and so it’s accurate. That includes some that aren’t quite out yet, but let’s go with 198.

Should we read more non-fiction?

Yes, we should – but only if we want to. I suppose I mean we should want to read more non-fiction. Actually people spend a lot of time reading non-fiction – in newspapers, magazines, on the web, and so on. Unfortunately, rather too much of it is about which celebrities are sleeping with each other, which is of no importance unless one of them is you.

I despise the faux-pride some people take in not knowing things – being proud of their ignorance of science or supposed inability to do any maths. Being ignorant is not something to be proud of. But nor is it something to be ashamed of – it’s an opportunity to learn something.

What kind of books do you like best?

What kind of books do I like best? That’s a very difficult question as I like lots of kinds of books! I’m currently reading The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins), a 17th-century German picaresque ‘novel’ called Simplicius Simplicissimus, and a book about economics (that’s work, but it’s interesting). But I also love picture books, and books about science, and books about – well, anything interesting. I like books that are clever but not arrogant. There are whole swathes of books I don’t like at all but I won’t mention them because it’s a personal taste thing and some of my friends write those kinds of books, and I wouldn’t want to upset anyone.

It seems you have so many books on the go at any one time that you forget; either that it’s being published today, or what your deadline is, or even that you wrote the book in the first place. I suppose I can’t ask you how long it takes you to write a book, but how long on average does it take you to write 1000 words?

You are being very diplomatic; you have seen my Facebook updates!

How long it takes to write a thousand words depends on which thousand words it is. Sometimes, it will take several days to write 1,000 words. Other times it will take a couple of hours. I type at about 55 wpm, so the quickest is, I suppose, about 20 minutes. But some of them will be the wrong words and need changing, so no less than 90 mins, I guess. But writing isn’t the time-consuming bit – research takes longer. If I’m writing a book that takes a lot of research, those 1,000 words can take a week. If I’m writing a story that doesn’t need much research, it can be right in an hour, or it can take months.

And how long is your average book, if there is such a thing?

Which kind of average? Median? Mean? I’m going to say about 7,000 words. But the shortest are 300 and the longest 80,000.

Do you have to pitch ideas for books, or do publishers now come to you and say they need a short book on Swedish book bloggers?

The latter. I have to write three books about Swedish book bloggers this month. Actually, I am so busy writing books publishers have asked for I hardly ever get time to pitch ideas. And that makes me sad, as there are some books I want to write that I can’t see I will get round to until there is another recession.

Is there a work of non-fiction by someone else you wish you had written?

Animalium, by Katie Scott and Jenny Broom, because it’s beautiful. Otherwise, Velcro Cows by Martyn Warren but I’m not sure it is non-fiction because most of it isn’t true. No – I’ve changed my mind: Montaigne’s Essais.

Do you ever use a pseudonym? Maybe it was really you?

I have done. But obviously I’m not going to tell you what it was. I have also threatened to when a publisher majorly screwed up a book. I said I wanted my name taken off it, and suggested a pseudonym – something like Clytemnestra Sponge – that would signal that it was not a real name. They saw through it, realised I was ridiculing the book, and the uber-editor, to her credit, worked through the night to restore my original text the day before it was due to go to press. But that’s not a normal state of affairs…

You seem to have a tremendous work ethic, always working, always a book to finish. How long is your working day, or week? And do you take holidays?

There is no routine day. Some weeks I end up doing 50 or 60 hours and other weeks only 20, but on average I work a normal number of hours. I did a quick calculation for the first half of the year and I worked an average of 38 hours a week (so no holidays or sick time in that). I don’t go on holidays much at the moment, but that’s because of domestic issues. But I’ve just got back from Northern Ireland where I was visiting my daughter (Big Bint).

The best thing about your job?

I don’t have to do things I really don’t want to do – I can just turn them down. And if there is something I really do want to do, I can do it and call it work. If I can’t sell it later, it was just a bad commercial decision, not skiving.

The worst?

Sometimes there is a project I really want to do and I can’t do it immediately as I’ve not got a contract for it and I need to earn money. And sometimes there will be a really good project and someone else in the process messes it up and I get disenchanted and don’t like it any more. And then I have to give it to Clytemnestra Sponge, who should have quite a body of bad books to her name by now…

Is there anything else you’d want to do for a living?

What else would I do? Something that combines history and science – medical archaeology, probably. Since I opted out of being a real academic, I can write about those things but not actually do the real research. That’s a shame. I don’t like only dealing in secondhand information all the time. I can do real research and I miss it.

How did this happen in the first place? I could see it might fit in well with bringing up children.

I’ve never worked for someone – you know, officially, doing as I’m told and turning up – except for weekend/holiday jobs as a teen and student. I had a part-time flexi-time job for 15 hours a week for a while when I was finishing my PhD, but they didn’t mind if I did all my hours in the middle of the night, so that doesn’t really count. I couldn’t really see any attraction in doing as I was told and spending hours a day getting to an office where some of the people would be unpleasant and some of the work I would have to do would be boring. I had an academic job briefly and decided that wasn’t what I wanted, and since writing was something I could do, I did that. I tried out lots of sorts of writing before settling on writing for children. Journalism was my least favourite – it seemed so pointless writing things that would just be thrown away a few days later. (This was before web archives!)

My rather weird working hours evolved when I was a single parent trying to work when my children weren’t around, so very early in the mornings, during school hours, and when they were in bed. And the times they went to their dad’s house, so that meant working weekends and long hours in parts of the school holiday.

I have a feeling that you also teach and/or have university related tasks. What, exactly? How much time do you spend on each?

The last three summers I have run a summer school programme in creative writing with Brian Keaney at Pembroke and King’s Colleges in Cambridge. It’s part of the Pembroke-King’s Summer Programme. Most of our students are undergraduates from the USA. It runs for eight weeks. This year I’m Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, which is two-and-a-half days a week during term time. I’ve been RLF fellow at other universities in the past, but it tends to be one or two years on and then two years off, so some years I don’t do any university work at all. RLF Fellows don’t teach a course – they help students with academic writing, in any discipline. It’s very rewarding and a challenge. Sometimes I’ll have a chemical engineering PhD thesis to look at, followed by an essay about some aspect of the Hebrew Bible, and then an anthropology dissertation on a tribe in Bolivia… You have to be intellectually agile!

Do you have a next book? I mean, is that even possible?

You mean next coming out or next to write? I don’t write only one at once. I’m working on a Gothic novel for 9-11s, just finishing a book about inventions (8-10), starting a GCSE guide to Jekyll and Hyde and doing The Story of Maps (adult). There’s also a picture book that needs sending to my agent and a couple of adult books I’m writing outlines for that I don’t think have been announced yet. Next out is, I think, Space Record Breakers from Carlton, which is out some time early this month. It might be out already, I’m not sure.

Finally, who plays you in The Life of Rooney?

Probably a muppet… Rowlf?

I should really have got you to ask the questions, shouldn’t I?

They wouldn’t have been very sensible if I’d asked them!

Now, hasn’t this made you want to read those 198 books? (And I must point out I’m really good at maths. And exo-planets. I should also have realised that Anne would ask things like ‘mean or median?’ and given her a proper question from the start. I blame that Clytemnestra.)

National Non-Fiction November

Mrs G’s book

I promise. I will not keep going on about the G family and how they influenced me. Not for all that much longer, anyway. But an influence is an influence and cannot be ignored.

It’ll get sadder now. Many years after my year of lodging with them, I was shocked to to be told that Mrs G was terminally ill. And that she’d not been wanting to tell me, because it was precisely the same illness that Mother-of-witch died of five years before. And she knew that, and I bet she knew that she was at least as much of a mother figure as she was friend. To lose two mothers to the same illness could be seen as carelessness.

Towards the end you go a bit crazy. I know I did. Mrs G clearly sensed it, and knew what to do.

A couple of days later a parcel arrived for me. It was a book. One of hers. Not one that I particularly wanted, but one of hers and so very well chosen. It was old and worn. It was Swedish Embroidery, by Eivor Fisher.

Eivor Fisher, Swedish Embroidery

I had been surrounded by embroidery for most of my life, and with it being mainly mid-20th century in style, it was precisely what I’d been surrounded by. Mother-of-witch and all her friends embroidered such things. In short, a little boring. For me.

But to Mrs G it was obviously fresh and exciting, being part of a much earlier craze for things Scandi (same as Sarah Lund’s jumpers) that young people well versed in arty ways liked back then.

What really made her gift special, however, was the card that accompanied the book, explaining why and what. Before they were married, Mr G had to attend classes in the evening for his architect course, which he didn’t care for. I suppose he’d rather have gone out with his girlfriend.

His girlfriend was so nice (well, we already knew) that she enrolled in embroidery classes at the same Art College, so that they could go for drinks afterwards. I find that very romantic.

So, there was the reason for the book. She wanted to leave a little bit of herself for me to keep. It’s amazing how knowing the background to something can change how you look at it.

This was precisely the book I needed. I won’t be embroidering anything from it, the way Mrs G hoped. But I don’t need to.

The brain talk

Blame My Brain. Yes, I will, if it turns out I made inadequate notes that don’t help me blog ten days after The Talk. That’s Nicola Morgan’s excellent talk on young brains, Monday last week, at the Royal Terrace Hotel.

As she pointed out, this is all about explaining why young people are the way they are. It’s no excuse. But it does help, realising why teenagers are so peculiar, and how they still manage to grow into quite normal adults after a while. For the purposes of the talk, Nicola reckoned a teenager is anyone between the ages of eight and thirty. Seems fair. We all know stroppy pre-teens and some of us have children who are still teenagers in their twenties.

Generalising is unfair, but can still be helpful. It’s worth working out if someone has ADHD/OCD or is just suffering from adolescence. The latter is something even rats and monkeys go through, although it is over a lot sooner for them.

There is peer pressure stress. They don’t care about their parents’s opinions the way they do their peers. And they get told off all the time. This is not good.

Neurons – grey matter – grow/multiply when girls are about ten and boys eleven. (I think it might have been 150 billion of the little things, but I could easily be wrong on the number of zeroes.) And then between ages 13 to 15 they start losing the neurons again, but that’s not as bad as it sounds. They use them, thereby strengthening connections. It’s a use it or lose it situation. And you really can’t be good at everything. Really.

The third stage is where you suddenly find you can’t do things you were previously able to do. You need more sleep than both before or after. Your emotions go haywire, and you take more risks, especially in the company of peers.

(I believe it is around here that we have the explanation as to why the young Seana merely grunted at her sisters, and how despite this they get on these days. It’s pure chemistry. Nothing – much, anyway – to do with what you’re told or taught.)

Depression for teenagers is easy to understand, while their prefrontal cortex is developing (this comes last, unfortunately). Part of the risk-taking is to use drugs, while at the same time the young brain is less able to cope with the effects of drugs.

Adults need to model good behaviour. We should remember, too, how we feel when we are criticised. We need to be their prefrontal cortex for them.

And something I’d never even thought of, is being younger than the rest. Nicola said she was among the younger ones in her school year. That can easily put you out of step with your peers when they have started accumulating neurons, or shedding them again. The little witch started school a year early, and classmates were between 12 and 18 months older. Maybe I was never as weird as I thought. Just not on the same neuron levels as the others.

For anyone who now needs a copy of Blame My Brain, the happy situation is that before Christmas (=now) Nicola will personally sell copies of all her books and sign them and post them to you. And do it cheaper than the shops.

I’m afraid I was so taken with the cakes and the tea last week, that I forgot to look at the copies of Blame My Brain they had for sale. Post-tea I only thought of my train and whether I’d get lost on the way to the station. But I am sure the book is as interesting as Nicola’s other non-fiction books. Last orders 16th December! (And since I’m not sure I’ve given you a terribly useful summary of the talk, I’d say getting a copy of the books is A Totally Good Thing.