You Just Need a Good Book!

Recently Christin Rude from the University of Washington Bookstore came to the Everett Public Library and presented some reading recommendations to the Everett Woman’s Book Club. I have been attacking this list with fervor and have found the books to be not just good, but excellent.

index (19)The first book I picked up was non-fiction. I think we all know what we would learn if we read the book The Shallows: What the internet is Doing to Our Brains. We would find what author Nicholas Carr presents: that books and reading help to focus our minds and promote deep thoughts while the internet, with its rapid, distracted sampling of small bits and pieces, is making us good at scanning and skimming. What we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection. We don’t have time to read and even if we did, we’d be too distracted to concentrate.

That is exactly what we’d learn if we had time to read The Shallows. I know I don’t.  I’m too busy with Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and my other online obsessions. Until I find a good book. And, you guys, I have! I have found two from Rude’s list that I’ve read more quickly than any in recent memory because they grabbed me and I was consumed with their worlds. In the interest of fighting Internet distraction, I’d like to share them with you.

index (20)Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is fabulous. This literary murder mystery won the Gold Dagger Award in 2011 because of wonderfully drawn characters and a setting which sucks you into the world of rural Mississippi of the 1970’s. Silas was the son of a poor, single black mother, and Larry was the child of lower middle-class white parents. Despite the racial tensions of the era, they become friends until a girl goes missing after a date with Larry. She is never found and Larry lives with the suspicion of her murder for years, spending his days as a lonely mechanic and becoming known as ‘Scary Larry’ to the folks in the town. He’s a compelling character as he visits his mother daily and keeps her chickens (named after the first ladies) and home up, all the while just hoping for a friend. His boyhood friend Silas returns after many years to become the town ‘constable’ who must investigate a new murder. It turns out that Silas does know something of the long ago murder and what he has left unsaid impacts his life and that of many others. Read this book if you want an engrossing novel which you will contemplate and reflect upon for many days.

index (1)The second book I read from Rude’s list has been a runaway number one best-seller in France and is the first work translated into English by author Gregoire Delacourt. My Wish List  is the story of Jocelyne, a wife and mother living in a small French town. She runs a haberdashery and writes a successful crafting blog. Her best friends work at the hairdressers next door and dream of winning big on the Euromillions. Convinced that Jocelyne will get a taste for their lottery habit, they encourage her to buy a ticket and, amazingly, Jocelyne wins 18 million euros. Before cashing her winnings, Jocelyne begins to list her ‘desires’ which are mostly simple, everyday objects.  She ponders whether money can truly bring happiness. Should she cash the check? Or will having such a large sum of money cause more problems than it solves?

My Wish List made me contemplate just how much influence money has over our lives, not just the opportunities it can afford but also affecting how you are perceived by others and whether it is healthy to be able to afford everything you wish for. From the opening sentence to the closing message, it was a literary, yet very accessible book. Touching and heart-wrenching, My Wish List lives up to the hype surrounding it. It is a well crafted and all-consuming novel.

I am looking forward to reading more books on Rude’s list and perhaps sharing them with you. But right now, I gotta go check my Facebook page. Squirrel!

Looking for Ghosts

hauntedstuffI’ve been on the hunt for a good ghost story, not because it’s October but because ghosts scare the bejesus out of me. My friend gave me a book last week called Haunted Stuff: Demonic Dolls, Screaming Skulls and Other Creepy Collectibles by Stacey Graham. It’s not only about traditional hauntings but also about all the seemingly innocent junk around our houses that could have a dark past that is still with the object and shooting out trouble. I woke up at 3am and couldn’t go back to sleep and decided to read through this book. Big mistake, especially when I got to the chapter about a doll named Robert in Florida who likes to move around rooms and look out the windows all on his own.

That is so not cool. So not cool at all.

Ghost ships, skulls in walls that don’t stop screaming until they’re put back into the walls (because I guess there’s nothing to scream about when you’re sealed up tight in a wall), séances, this book has enough terrifying stuff to cause me a few sleepless nights. But it’s those dolls sitting on a shelf, staring and maybe moving around at night or, God no, crawling down from the shelf and touching your face while you sleep. Those were the stories that I craved. And feared. I creaved them. Yeah, I just made up a word.

roomsI wanted more ghost stories, something a little somber and less frightening than a doll moving around a room and staring out at the people in the streets. (Man, I am not going to get over that one.) I picked up Lauren Oliver’s Rooms. Ghost jackpot! In Rooms, Richard Walker dies and in swoops his estranged and EXTREMELY screwed up son, daughter and ex-wife to settle his estate. The house is already occupied by two ghosts: Alice, a house wife from WW II and Sandra, a woman who died in the house in 1987. Both ghosts watched Richard’s children grow up, lovely Minna who always seemed to have a hard edge to her and angelic Trenton.

The ghosts are disappointed to see what has become of this brother and sister in the 12 years since their parent’s divorce. Minna has become a bit of a whore although when a woman has daddy issues I don’t think you’re supposed to call her a whore when she uses sex to get what she wants. I think you’re supposed to shake your head in pity and go clean your own house. The funeral director comes over with picture samples of urns for her father’s remains and the next thing you know, bang a gong they’re getting it on. Minna’s 6 year old daughter Amy nearly catches them in the act but Minna stows the funeral director under the bed and doesn’t flinch when he calls her a crazy bitch. She moves on to the fed ex guy.

Trenton is now a pimple ridden 16-year-old who almost died a year before in a car accident. He goes to an all-boys school and is a miserable kid, more miserable than usual because he remembers almost dying and he wants to return to that feeling, of being in a warm and comforting place, a place where he doesn’t have an embarrassing nickname earned at a party. Their mom Caroline has spent years hiding in a bottle and is now a throwing-up-blood alcoholic who can’t make it past 8am without a glass of vodka. They have a whole house to get through along with a funeral. The two ghosts, Alice and Sandra watch them. Trenton is the only one who can sense them and sometimes catches them talking to one another. The ghosts have terrible secrets. In alternating chapters each tells her story full of tragedy, loneliness, and regret. But a new ghost appears out of nowhere and she can’t remember who she is or how she died.  And she tempts Trenton into killing himself so they can be together.

Like most great ghost stories, Rooms unfolds layer after layer of the past, examining wrong turns, unkindness’s and broken hearts. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts. I think we’re so chock full of energy that we leave an imprint behind, a mixed tape cassette left on repeat that keeps playing our lowest points and maybe even some of the good times.

Good news? There’s a happy ending to Rooms. Bad news? I have a weird take on what a happy ending means. Enjoy a good ghost story that won’t have you checking under the bed for evil dolls.

Need a Scary Book? Just Orsk!

One of the best things about my job as a cataloger is getting to see the new books as they arrive. My primary job responsibilities revolve around entering and coding data into the catalog for each book, ensuring consistency across genres and series, and doing it all in a timely manner. As a bibliovore, sometimes the best part about my job can also be my downfall. Consider the following:

Me: Awesome book! Awesome book! Red alert! Need to check it out!
Inner voice: You already have a ton at home, and over a thousand in your TBR list on GoodReads.
Me: But…this one is different! I will read this one tonight!
Inner voice: Ummm…you’re delusional, lady. Why do I even bother trying to get you to see reason?
Me: That’s right! *sounds of book being checked out*

HorrorstorThe most recent example of a book that so captured my interest was Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix. The book, as you can probably tell, is designed to look very similar to the iconic Ikea catalog, complete with product descriptions and even a mock order form. I totally judged this book by its cover, and I am so happy I did. Had this not looked so dang quirky I would have most definitely passed it by.

Our protagonist is Amy. Amy’s in her mid-twenties, a college dropout, and someone who is always working extra hard just to scrape by. She finally moved out of her mom’s trailer, but she’s always mooching food off of her roommates and the rent is often late. She’s kind of a screw-up but she still has hope that she can change her situation, rise above her humble beginnings, and beat the odds to eventually become happy.

Amy works at Orsk, an Ikea-wannabe that deals in cheaply priced flat pack Scandinavian-style furniture and accessories. She moved from the Youngstown, OH store to the Cuyahoga store when it first opened eleven months ago, but she has recently put in for a transfer back to Youngstown. The Cuyahoga store, despite being extremely busy, isn’t hitting sales projections and Amy would rather align herself with a superstar store than a sinking ship. She’d like to eventually get into a cushy desk job at Corporate, but she doesn’t think she’ll ever stand a chance in Cuyahoga. She’s also fed up with her coworkers, thinks her supervisor is trying to get her fired, and feels like she’s going nowhere fast which is taking a hit on her psyche.

So when Basil, her supervisor, asks Amy and store superstar Ruth Anne to clock in to a covert overnight shift with him to try and catch whoever is vandalizing the store at night, Amy can’t refuse. She can use the brownie points and extra cash. What she doesn’t count on is running into fellow Orsk employees Matt and Trinity, who have snuck into the store overnight for ghost hunting purposes. What none of them count on is the horrors and pain that await them after closing time.

Orsk

Am I being vague? Sure! How’s this for more specific: the first half of the book is a dark comedy that centers on a beat-down retail employee in her natural habitat, navigating the world of work. The second half of the book slams you into a horror story beyond my worst nightmares. As someone who hasn’t picked up a horror book since the Fear Street novels of my teenage years in the ’90s, I was shocked, scared, and actually intimidated. I read the first half of the book in one night, got to the scary part, and went, “Nope!” and put it down again. Thankfully I eventually got the courage to crack the spine again and ended up with the following summary:

It was terrifying and hilarious. And just when I thought the ending was going to be super lame, it turned out to be super good.

Be warned. The scary scenes are truly scary, gory, and heart-wrenchingly graphic. But the book overall was a story that made me so happy I stuck with it. It’s packed with social commentary you won’t soon forget. I immediately recommended this to a bunch of coworkers, who also put it on hold. So you may have to wait a bit but I promise it’s worth it.

Due to the graphic nature of the second half of the book and the fact that it completely intimidated me into not reading it for a whole week, I’m technically counting this as number 3 on my 2014 Reading Resolutions list:

  1. Read something a library patron recommends
  2. Read this year’s Everett Reads! book 
  3. Read something difficult, either due to subject matter or writing style
  4. Read an award-winning book
  5. Read something that is super-popular 
  6. Read a book that was the basis for a TV series or movie
  7. Read a classic work of literature
  8. Read an annotated classic work of literature
  9. Read something that will help me plan for the future
  10. Read something that will help me reconcile the past
  11. Read a graphic novel 
  12. Read an entire series that is new to me

So, who wants to help me create an Orsk furniture-based costume for Halloween?

Top Ten Books That Have Stayed With Us

If you’re on Facebook and have friends who read, you may have come across the recent meme which asks you to list the top ten books that have influenced and stayed with you in some way. You’re not supposed to think hard about this or take too long to do it. Just list ten!

I thought that it would be interesting to conduct a (very unscientific) poll of the library staff to see which books have stayed with us as a whole. The results included a lot of children’s books and that might be because we tend to read these books at a very impressionable age. Favorite books from these years are more likely to lodge themselves deeply into our memories. It’s probable that the book that made you love reading was a children’s book because that’s when you first had an all-night, under-the-covers, flashlight-lit reading binge.

So what did I do with my responses? I tallied them up, of course, and rated them by their popularity. That, unfortunately, left many favorites by the wayside. I have included a quote from each book that got at least two votes. Here they are in all of their glory:

index (1)The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder was the clear winner with a total of four votes. “The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.”  I read the whole series over and over again and it was pure pleasure to read about a young girl who was happy to have an orange at Christmas.

index (3)Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montegomery was a close second with three votes. Anne, an eleven-year-old orphan, is sent to live with a lonely, middle-aged brother and sister on a Prince Edward Island farm and proceeds to make an indelible impression on everyone around her. This series would make an excellent family read-aloud. Anne: “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

index (4)The Hobbit, or, There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien was right up there with Anne and that’s no surprise. This book is a glorious account of a magnificent adventure, filled with suspense and seasoned with a quiet humor that is irresistible. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” until the day the wandering wizard Gandalf chooses him to take part in an adventure from which he may never return.

index (5)Rounding out the three vote category is (gasp!) an adult book: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. This is a humorous memoir of a Scottish vet who roamed the remote Yorkshire Dales treating every patient that came his way, from smallest to largest, and observing animals and humans alike with his keen eye. “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.” This is superb comfort reading.

There were many, many books with one vote, but these are the ones which got two votes (in alphabetical order):

index (6)Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy isn’t one that I read as a child, but it was one I read in college and the one that taught me to love great literary works. It has been described as the best novel ever written and is considered flawless by many. Anna Karenina tells the story of the doomed love affair between the sensuous, rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

index (7)Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, the author of Stuart Little, is a classic of children’s literature that is just about perfect.  “Some Pig. Humble. Radiant.” These are the words in Charlotte’s web, high up in Zuckerman’s barn. Charlotte’s spiderweb tells of her feelings for a little pig named Wilbur, who simply wants a friend. They also express the love of a girl named Fern, who saved Wilbur’s life when he was born the runt of his litter. E. B. White’s Newbery Honor Book is a tender novel of friendship, love, life, and death that will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.

index (8)The Harry Potter series was THE most popular on Facebook, but just one of our books with two votes. We must be older. This is the book that ushered in an entire generation of readers, my children included. You know the plot: Harry is an orphan who lives a rather dismal life until he gets a message from an owl which summons him to a life of magic and quidditch at Hogwart’s School. “The truth is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with caution.”

index (10)The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was perhaps the first Sci-Fi book you read. Seconds before the Earth is demolished for a galactic freeway, Arthur Dent is saved by Ford Prefect, a researcher for the revised Guide. Together they stick out their thumbs, travel to the stars and begin a wild journey through time and space. You either love this or put it down like a hot potato. “So long, and thanks for all the fish.”

index (11)I read all of the Nancy Drew Series the summer before fourth grade and oh, how I loved Nancy and Ned! This series had an enormous impact on the popular imagination because it features a female main character who is smart and brave and rescues her boyfriend instead of the other way around. These books were so much better than the Hardy boys. “Nancy, every place you go, it seems as if mysteries just pile up one after another.”

indexPaddle-To-The-Sea  is a 1942 Caldecott Honor Book written and illustrated by Holling Clancy Holling. At Lake Nipigon Canada, a native boy carves a wooden model of an Indian in a canoe and sets it free to travel the Great Lakes to the Atlantic ocean. The story follows the progress of the little wooden Indian on its journey through all five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, finally arriving at the Atlantic Ocean. “Put me back into the water for I am Paddle-to-the Sea.” 

So, there you have it. Perhaps you can get some of these books into the hands of an impressionable reader, or would even like to re-read them yourself. I can’t leave you without giving you my own personal list. I love each and every one of these!

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Conversion by Katherine Howe

conversionWhen I was in high school there was this kid with Tourette syndrome and a glass eye. None of us knew what Tourette syndrome was. We just knew he blurted out things that came as half swears: “Fu, fu, fu!”  Or “Shi, shi!! shi!” He had a few facial tics, his body would twitch and he was exhausting to watch because he was constantly moving. We thought he was an annoying kid. We also thought he was lying when he said he had a glass eye. You couldn’t tell like with Colombo or Sandy Duncan when you look at them and go ‘Yup! That one’s the glass eye. It goes off a little to the left.’

But one day in theatre class he was on stage and his glass eye fell out. I was sitting in the theatre seats with some other students and was looking down at my lap reading a book (because theatre class was boring and the girls wore all black and the meat head footballers thought it was an easy A which it was) when I heard everyone gasp. I looked at the stage to find the kid bending down scurrying around for his eye. There was some nervous laughter and he may have wiped the eye on his corduroy pants but I was just pissed I missed the actual eye falling out of his actual head.

In Katherine Howe’s Conversion, Colleen Rowley attends St. Joan’s Academy, a school known for producing graduates that go on to Ivy League universities. Colleen is at the top of her class and is a runner-up for valedictorian. The aim to be top student is unbelievably stressful. Some of the girls begin to have breakdowns which the parents and teachers brush off as hormones. But when Clara Rutherford topples over in class and begins to have a seizure, the entire world of St. Joan’s Academy grinds to a halt.

Girl after girl begins to have tics and Exorcist-like contortions that lands a few of them in the hospital. Parents begin to worry. Is there something in the environment that’s causing the girls to collapse one by one? Fearing that she might be the next girl to be hit by the mysterious illness, Colleen begins to read about a girl in the 1700s who, along with other girls, began to have strange fits that were blamed on demons and the cranky old ladies in town. That town was called Salem.

A therapist explains to Colleen that the girls are suffering from conversion disorder which produces neurological symptoms (tics, fits, blindness, sometime even paralysis) but has no real cause. It was once known as hysteria or as I like to call it: This corset is suffocating me and I haven’t eaten in 3 years because these are  Victorian times and I have to be the paragon of femininity and that means I have to faint in a pretty and lady-like way and then spend a week every month being reminded that I’m a woman and should cinch my corset a little tighter.

The media descends on Colleen’s town, camping in front of the school and hollering embarrassing questions at the girls. At a time when Colleen and her classmates should be excited (and nervous as hell) about their last year of high school and the new possibilities of university, they’re terrified, hiding away, becoming sicker and more paranoid as the days go on.

Katherine Howe has written a kick-ass book full of insight into the minds of driven girls and who they think they are when every last bit of them is stripped away. As I read this book I had flashbacks of my time in high school. Well, mostly about skipping classes so I could go home to read. I was an almost straight A student but that was more out a fear of being ordinary than any real ambition to be a stellar student. I still have those high school dreams, though. I’ll be trying to get my math book out of my locker, can’t remember the combination and realize I haven’t done any of the math assignments for 3 months. Just as I’m about to topple into despair that I won’t graduate, I’ll remember I’m 37 years old and done with high school. All these years later and high school still slips in and gets a hold of me. Ugh. Shake it off, Jennifer.

Being 16 is hard enough. Add in the pressure to get into a top university and live up to the expectations of everyone else and no wonder the human body goes into meltdown.

Still, I wish I could have seen that kid’s glass eye pop out of his head.

A Novel Debut

Pity the poor debut novel. First it has to overcome the almost impossible odds of actually getting published. No mean feat with an unknown author. Then it has the daunting task of competing for a reader’s attention with books that are from established writers who have a dedicated fan base and a big publicity machine behind them. All these obstacles have a benefit for the reader though: debut novels are often unconventional. To grab a reading audience, an unknown author will often go out of their way to establish a unique style, theme or ambiance. Sometimes this flops, but other times it produces a unique and mesmerizing reading experience. I’ve never found a foolproof way of discerning the good from the bad, but recently I’ve come across two debut novels that are well worth your reading time.

Why Are You So Sad? by Jason Porter
whyareyousosadRaymond Champs, an illustrator of instructional manuals at a large furnishing company, is not a happy camper. He casts a jaundiced eye at the world around him and sees little to celebrate and much to criticize with biting humor.  Instead of seeing his resulting despair as a personal problem, however, he becomes convinced that his condition is universal. Everybody on the planet is suffering from clinical depression, they just don’t realize it. In order to prove his theory, and save his sanity, he decides to create a questionnaire to probe his coworkers supposed afflictions. To get them to actually fill the form out, he claims it is from Human Resources. Not a smart career move, but it gets the job done. His coworkers begin scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to answer questions such as:

If you were a day of the week, would you be a Monday or Wednesday?
Are you for the chemical elimination of all things painful?
Do you think we need more sports?

Porter’s novel is definitely a modern office satire and any fellow denizen of bureaucratic culture, be it corporate or governmental, will find themselves chuckling throughout the work. The author clearly also has an absurdist bent and likes to play with language, especially dialog, and plot. This turns what could have been a more conventional satirical novel into something more experimental. The ending especially, which is far from conclusive but ultimately satisfying, might be a hard sell for some. Still, if you are willing to leave a few conventions behind, and have no problem laughing out loud while reading, this novel is for you.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane
nightguestRuth Field lives in an idyllic Australian seaside home just steps from the beach. She is recently widowed, her husband having died suddenly from a heart attack, but is slowly getting used to living alone. She stays in contact with her two adult sons and also has memories of her early life growing up in Fiji to keep her company. There is one problem though; when she wakes in the evening, she hears what she thinks is a tiger prowling around her house, knocking over furniture and trying to get into her bedroom.  One day a woman named Frida, stating that she is a caregiver sent by the government, shows up and begins to help Ruth out in small ways for an hour or two a day. Ruth is taken aback at first, since she is not used to having a stranger in the house, but slowly comes to rely on Frida for most things. As the relationship develops, however, it soon becomes clear that Frida is not what she claims to be.

The plot of this novel may seem somewhat conventional, but the presentation is anything but. Most of the book is from Ruth’s perspective as she struggles to figure out what is real and whether Frida is a force for good or ill. Slowly her ideas of the past and the present begin to blend as she tries to make sense of events that could be either real or imagined. The author’s use of language is the key here, with it beautifully reflecting the strange state of consciousness that can come as the mind slowly slips away. The effect is quite haunting and produces a gothic ambiance that has no need for paranormal activity to produce a sense of dread and foreboding. What‘s in the mind is more than enough.

So why not try a debut novel or two? There’s nothing wrong with being unconventional from time to time.

Invasion of the Killer B-movie Robot Monster from Mars

It CameB-movies meet P.G. Wodehouse in the 2014 graphic novel It Came!, ‘directed’ by Dan Boultwood. Boultwood previously illustrated a series of graphic novels about The Baker Street Irregulars which were written by Tony Lee, who has also written for IDW’s Doctor Who Comics.

Before the main ‘feature’ there are a number of 1950’s style advertisements. For example, the top of one page sports an illustration of an attractive, stylish woman declaring, “I like my men like I like my bacon: Smokey.” At the bottom of the page: “Smoke & Choke’um Cigarettes: For that discerning odour.”

Just before the ‘feature attraction’ begins there is a ‘trailer’ for another ‘feature’ (and possible future comic, according to interviews with the author): The Lost Valley of the LostLost Valley features the two stars of It Came!, Dick Claymore and Fanny Flaunders, as well as Cecil Herringbone and Sir Rutherford P. Basingstoke as Caveman. The trailer features views of canyons with our heroine, played by the lovely Fanny Flaunders, in perilous situations: being attacked by a snake, a plant and a spanner. The trailer’s climax sees the heroes being confronted by a rather cuddly dinosaur.

On to our ‘feature’, It Came!, presented in Eyeball-O-Rama-Vision! A colorful poster-style page depicting a giant robot clutching a beautiful woman proclaims, “Something is coming round for afternoon tea…and it isn’t the vicar!” Then our story begins. In 1950’s England an old farmer drives his tractor under the stars. Suddenly, a robot monster attacks!

Two days pass and Dr. Boy Brett, dashing pipe-smoking British scientist, and his lovely assistant Doris Night are motoring down a country road in what appears to be a Morris Minor. Brett is very English, with rather Wodehousian speech patterns. For example, complimenting Doris, Brett says, “You know, Doris? For a girl, you’re a good egg!”

Doris and Dr. Brett stop at a pub in a quaint country village. The village is deserted. Our heroes are chased by an alien robot. They escape to the next quaint village, which is inhabited by people who appear to be living in the 1940’s. Dr. Brett makes a very British phone call to Colonel Willie Warwick Wilberton of the British army, who sends out some troops in exchange for two pints and a pork pie.

And that’s just the first quarter of the book!

Earth vs Flying Boultwood is inspired by American B-movies of the 1950’s, the type one might see on Mystery Science Theater 3000, such as Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers and Attack of the Crab Monsters. However, It Came! is more of an homage than a send-up. Boultwood has lots of fun with the genre (for example, when the flying saucer is revealed there is a string attached!), but the fun is never cruel.

It Came! has everything: beautiful women, flying saucers, soldiers, politicians with really big pipes, explosions, tea and crumpets, and, of course, science! It’s enjoyable, funny reading and I highly recommend it.