Book reviews – Knowledge Translation edition

I realised recently that the “everything I used to blog about is now on Twitter or Goodreads instead” trend of recent years means that I never got around to mentioning my new job!

After ten years of grant writing and project management at the BC Cancer Agency, I moved to a new role at UBC and BC Children’s Hospital in November as a Knowledge Translation Specialist, focusing on epigenetics. (I KNOW – how perfect is that?! I read the job description thinking “whoa, did they write this specifically for me?!). This means that I’m responsible for fast-tracking the transfer of research findings into the hands of people who can use them in the real world – clinical practitioners, educators, social services providers, governments and other policy makers, parents, and the general public. Someone I met recently said “oh, so you’re like a life coach for scientific data?”, which I thought was perfect (and promptly stole for my Twitter bio).

It has been absolutely fab so far. I still have a lot to learn, especially on the social sciences and policy side of things, but I am very happy with the switch. It was a crazy year (I interviewed for the job just five days after moving house in August, which I do not recommend), but it was worth it for the upgrade in job, house, and neighbourhood. The commute is longer, but I bought an electric assist bike (which I DO recommend. So much. It’s awesome), and on the days I take transit I almost always get a seat, which means lots of time to read.


This elevation profile of my ride from home to my UBC office (I have two offices now because I am very fancy) is a nice visual explanation of why I bought an e-bike. SeaBus crossing not shown – I turned the tracker off for that part of the trip.

Speaking of which… since all my KT experience is self-taught, one of the first things I did after accepting the job was to order as many books about the subject as I could find on Amazon. Hopefully these brief reviews will be helpful to others who are entering the field!

The first three books form a natural set – theory, practice, and case studies – that I quite by chance happened to read in what I now think of as the “right” order.  This worked out so well for me that I would definitely recommend reading these three books in the order listed below – at the very least, read the more theoretical text first. (If you only want to read one book about knowledge translation, I would recommend The Knowledge Translation Toolkit).

Knowledge translation seems to have a distinct colour palette. Is this the case for other fields, too?

(Theory): “Knowledge Translation in Health Care: Moving from Evidence to Practice” by Sharon E. Straus (Editor), Ian D. Graham (Editor), Jacqueline Tetroe (Editor)

This book comprises a series of short chapters on a wide range of topics, including adjacent disciplines such as research ethics and health economics alongside the core KT themes. It’s a good literature review-style introduction to the field, covering diverse angles and sub-disciplines. It’s comprehensively referenced; I’ve yet to find a better list of primary literature, websites, and other resources. There’s a particularly helpful chapter on how to find relevant literature, featuring a humongous table listing all the different terms used in this field (e.g. knowledge translation versus knowledge mobilisation, transfer, exchange, or dissemination) as well as links to PubMed filters you can use to find papers specific to your own work.

This list goes on for two whole pages! (Photo taken on bus)

I also enjoyed the handful of case studies, especially the ethics example and the chapter that walked the reader through the entire KT cycle for a single project. It’s so useful to see how these concepts can be applied in practice, and I wish the editors had included more examples.

I do think the book’s attempt to cover so much ground was ultimately a mistake, though, compounded by the fact that each chapter tries to cover the whole spectrum from complete beginner to advanced expert on any given topic. This left me confused about who the primary audience is supposed to be; people who need definitions of basic concepts and terms won’t be able to contribute to advancing the field’s methodology, whereas people who arewell placed to contribute to those efforts don’t need such basic introductions. The end result of trying to cover so much ground is that there isn’t enough depth on any given subject.

I also had some editing and formatting quibbles: there are a lot of distracting typos, subject-verb disagreements, punctuation errors, and other sloppy mistakes in the edition I read. Some of the tables also include whole paragraphs of text per cell, which makes them hard to read.

(Practice): “The Knowledge Translation Toolkit: Bridging the Know-Do Gap: A Resource for Researchers” by Gavin Bennett (Editor), Nasreen Jessani (Editor)

There’s much less detail on knowledge translation history and theories in this volume, and much more advice on how to make it all actually happen. The book contains very practical suggestions, a handful of document templates (with links to more), and lots of case studies (mostly from international development projects), although these could have been more detailed. There’s some clunky phrasing in the introduction, but the rest of the book is well written and copy-edited. I also found some great quotes:

“A completed research project is like a seed. Getting the findings published in a scientific journal is like putting that seed in a packet, with a label on it. Well done! But is it “job done”? KT suggests it is only job begun, because while it remains a seed, it is only data; when it is packaged and labeled it is only information. To become knowledge, it must be taken out of the packet and planted in a place where it can grow (the right soil, the right climate, the right care) and become something useful. Even the most brilliant scientific paper becomes something useful only when it is planted in the mind of someone with the power to do something about it. The message of research findings must not only be written. It must be read, understood, and acted on”

“Knowledge is like fine wine. The researcher brews it, the scientific paper bottles it, the peer review tastes it, the journal sticks a label on it, and archive systems store it carefully. Splendid! Just one small problem: wine is only useful when somebody drinks it. Wine in a bottle does not quench thirst. Knowledge Translation (KT) opens the bottle, pours the wine into a glass, and serves it”

“Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) is integral to any operation. It is usually conducted at the end of a project or term. It assesses performance in order to reward, correct, or improve. It is as useful to the concluded project itself as a post-mortem is to a corpse. […] Evaluative Thinking (ET) is an equivalent of questioning, reflecting, learning, and modifying but it is conducted all the time. It is a constant state-of-mind within an organization’s culture and all its systems. So it is not a forensic mortician; it is a doctor – checking the pulse, diagnosing condition, prescribing for prevention, remedy, and enhanced performance”.

There are some sections that seem rather generic, such as advice on best practices for emailing people and formatting documents – not horrible, but basic, and I’m not really sure why they were included here. Overall, though, this book is a very useful resource. If you’re only going to read one book on knowledge translation, I would recommend reading this one.

(Case studies): “Knowledge Translation in Context: Indigenous, Policy, and Community Settings” by Elizabeth M. Banister (Editor), Bonnie J. Ross Leadbeater (Editor), E. Anne Marshall (Editor), Deborah L. Begoray (Contributor), Cecilia Benoit (Contributor), David Burns (Contributor)

This is a collection of detailed case studies, written by researchers who’ve worked in each of the three areas listed in the title. The authors have done a great job of synthesizing general recommendations from their specific stories, making this a fantastic resource for people working in any of these three areas. For example, there’s advice on mitigating power imbalances and avoiding tokenism, involving non-profit sector partners in designing studies, communicating results to stakeholders, incorporating reciprocity and two-way knowledge exchange, bridging the divides between researchers from different disciplines, mentorship, and much more.

I found the policy section particularly insightful, and am trying to incorporate the authors’ advice on long-term thinking and relationship building into my own project planning. There’s also a lot of information on how to reach “hidden” participants in policy making (political staffers and advisers and such), the importance of timing, and other factors that aren’t immediately obvious from outside the policy world. This is definitely a book I’ll come back to over and over again as my specific KT projects continue to take shape.

The fourth book is a little different, and distinct from the set listed above – it’s not really about KT per se, but more about science communication in general.

“Tell It Like It Is?: Science, Society and the Ivory Tower” by Michele Cooke (Editor)

I loved these three essays from University of Vienna professors on different aspects of science communication beyond the deficit model, in which it’s assumed that lack of information is the only barrier to reaching non-academic audiences.

Benjamin Schmid’s contribution is about finding the relevance of the research to the target audiences, and includes various strategies for breaking down and selecting the most relevant pieces of the story for each audience without dumbing the message down.

Michaela Chiaki Ripplinger writes about biases and power structures in science communication. The core message is that it’s essential to consider and respect the diverse expertise of the audience, and to be aware of the different and sometimes competing intentions behind the production of science communication pieces. For example, there’s a potential conflict of interest in getting people excited about research for which you’re seeking funding.

The final chapter, by Michèle Cooke, covers what science communicators can learn from poetry, which is something I’d never even thought about before. For example, confident communication involves trusting people enough to give them the space to form their own interpretations of your words. I really didn’t think I’d like this section – it started off pretty “artsy” and abstract – but it was actually very helpful and thought-provoking.

Overall, this collection provides a good mix of practical and actionable advice alongside more abstract musings. It’s very well written, and a pleasure to read. However, it’s a very slim volume, with a lot of white space, including in the numbered footnotes and alphabetical bibliography that follow each chapter (annoyingly, many of the footnotes just refer to an item in the bibliography). This feels like wasted space, and I ended up wishing I’d bought the e-book instead of the hardback version.


If you’re interested in this topic, I also highly recommend Eva’s new workbook, “From Science to SciComm”, for people looking to break into SciComm careers, and for scientists who want to get better at communicating their work to non-specialists. It’s a much more practically focused guide than “Tell It Like It Is?”, full of templates and worksheets, and I wish I’d had something like it to hand when I was first moving out of research at the end of my postdoc!

Posted in blog buddies, book review, career, communication, cycling, Knowledge translation | 2 Comments

“Cracking Cancer” on CBC’s The Nature of Things tonight

Tonight’s episode of CBC documentary series The Nature of Things with David Suzuki features an in-depth look at the BC Cancer Agency’s Personalized Onco-Genomics (POG) project, which is exploring the feasibility of sequencing DNA and RNA from cancer cells to help physicians select the best treatment for each individual patient.

Project co-lead Dr. Janessa Laskin also did a great interview about POG on CBC Radio’s The Current yesterday.

I got to see a staff preview of the Nature of Things episode on Tuesday, and I think the production team did an amazing job at presenting a balanced view of this specific project and of cancer genomics in general. If you’re in Canada, check it out on the CBC tonight at 8pm! It’ll be repeated on Saturday, and available online at the link above.

NB I’m not directly involved with this project, but pretty much everything we do in my department (Canada’s Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre) touches on POG in some way. Many of my colleagues and friends are featured in the documentary – it’s always very cool to see people you know on TV! We’re all very proud of the work we do; I hope you enjoy seeing inside our world!

Posted in Canada, cancer research, genomics, medicine, science, television, video | Comments Off on “Cracking Cancer” on CBC’s The Nature of Things tonight

Podcath part III: sci-fi audio drama edition

Radio drama is making a big comeback in the form of podcasts, with plenty of high quality science fiction to choose from. Here are some of my favourites.

I’ve been a science fiction fan since I first read John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids as a kid. I quickly graduated to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books (I’m proudly sporting a “Vote Zaphod Beeblebrox 2016” t-shirt as I write this), Red Dwarf, and countless other books, TV shows, and films – some of them great, some of them terrible, some of them (my favourites, if I’m honest) somehow managing to be both.

I’ve also been a podcast fan for many years. Ironically, however, given the origins of my beloved Hitchhiker series as a radio programme, I’d never combined the two interests until very recently; my phone’s playlist was full of documentary series. But then CBC Vancouver ran a story on a locally made paranormal mockumentary podcast, The Black Tapes (The X-Files meets Serial), and I suddenly found myself in a whole new world of audio drama – and discovered some phenomenal new science fiction.

The podcast format is ideal for old-time radio drama-style productions, which are making a big comeback. There seem to be new shows launching every week, and unfortunately many of them just don’t work – even when the story’s decent the characters’ voices sometimes all sound too similar, the actors haven’t rehearsed properly and are obviously reading from a script, or it’s not clear what’s going on in the big action sequences (apart from an awful lot of banging and shouting, usually). But when it’s done well, it’s a truly immersive experience and a wonderful way to enjoy some quality sci-fi while you commute, exercise, or plot galactic domination at the head of an army of evil robots.

My all-time favourite sci-fi podcast has to be Sayer (miraculously resurrected recently for a fourth season). The story of a colony established by a private company on an artificial moon is told almost entirely in one voice, that of the eponymous AI entity who runs the operation. The first few episodes focused largely on a single new member of the colony, and were fairly light in tone. However, the series got darker, more thoughtful (downright philosophical at times), and a lot more intricate as it went on to explore the origins and likely fate of the colony, and I was completely absorbed by the extremely clever use of sound and music (I almost missed my bus stop several times). They even managed to pull off an extremely satisfying ending to the original three-season arc, which is all too rare for a much beloved series. Very cleverly done, and highly recommended. I shall be listening to the whole thing all over again in anticipation of the new episodes.

Back on Earth, The Bright Sessions is also excellent. Imagine if Professor X ran a psychiatry practice instead of a school for gifted youngsters, and you’ve got the premise – Dr. Bright specializes in counselling young people with extraordinary powers, including time travel and telepathy. The early episodes each comprise a single session with seemingly unconnected patients, but as the story progresses the dots begin to connect into a larger conspiracy.

To The Manor Borne (By Robots) rounds out my top three. This utterly charming podcast consists of stand-alone stories, as told to placate a Beast, Destroyer of Worlds. The episodes are held together by an ongoing swashbuckling, time-travelling, body-swapping tale about the quest for the Beast’s origins and the means to its downfall. It’s enormously good fun, and I only wish the episodes came out more frequently.

I also enjoy ars PARADOXICA (time travel shenanigans), Limetown, (mockumentary about a mysterious town and its scientific shenanigans)and The Message (another mockumentary – the format works well on audio podcasts – about scientists figuring out a mysterious signal)Away from the strictly sci-fi genre, I highly recommend Greater Boston (if you like Wes Anderson movies, you will like this), Hello from the Magic Tavern (silly), The Lift (spooky), The Magnus Archive (creepy), and Uncanny County (quirky). If you’re still looking for more radio drama content, there’s a good list of paranormal and sci-fi podcasts on Reddit, and you can find additional shows on Twitter via the #audiodramasunday hashtag.

Whole new worlds are waiting for you on your phone!

Posted in fiction, reviews, silliness, technology, why I love the internet | Comments Off on Podcath part III: sci-fi audio drama edition

Brits! You can buy my book now

“Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide” is out NOW in the UK. It’s also available for pre-order everywhere else, and will be released on March 14th in the USA and on March 20th in Canada and elsewhere. Links to all major vendors are available here – or ask your friendly local independent bookstore!

I’ve also set up a Goodreads profile, because I am a proper author now, you know*. Add/follow me/my book!

I received my advance copies on Tuesday, and everything looks fab. It is so cool to actually hold it in my hands after all that work over the last couple of years!



The books I write seem to keep getting smaller (but more interesting)


I had to break it to Saba that she’s not in the book because she’s the wrong kind of cat


You’ll be glad (?) to hear that some of my cheesy puns survived the editing process

This has all been very exciting! I hope you like the book 🙂

*I colleague asked me last week where she could buy the book; I said “Amazon”. “REALLY?!” she replied, somewhat incredulously. I said “Yes! It’s, like, a real book!”

Another colleague then ordered the book while sitting next to me at a symposium. He let me click the “place order” button. I am so cheesy.

Posted in furry friends, photos, publishing, writing | Comments Off on Brits! You can buy my book now

Last Saturday:



Photo taken outside the Trump building. I borrowed the sign from a lovely group of people I met at the march

Up next: March for Science (the Vancouver chapter)

What I learned from protesting against Harper and his war on science:

  • Take care of yourself and each other, first and foremost
  • Pace yourself
  • Pick your battles
  • Don’t burn out

Hugs and solidarity to you all!

p.s. Canadians, there’s a petition you can sign “calling on Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister Hussen to immediately rescind the “Safe Third Country Agreement”, and that immediate steps be taken to allow special consideration of humanitarian and compassionate reasons for entry to Canada as enabled by the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.” Asylum seekers facing deportation from the US back to dangerous situations in their home countries would currently be automatically rejected if they seek asylum in Canada, as they’re supposed to make their claim in the first safe country they reach. The US is still designated as a safe country. The petition isn’t about automatically accepting all asylum claimants coming from the States – it’s about not automatically rejecting them. I think they should be given the chance to state their case and make a claim. I’d already written to my MP about this issue so I know it’s on some of our representatives’ radar already, and hopefully the petition will help to bump it up the priority list.

Posted in activism, Canada, current affairs, feminism, personal, photos, politics, science, the resistance | 2 Comments


This excuses my long absence from this and other blogs, right?

And I’m so excited that the cover and the publisher’s page have been finalized so that I can tell you about it at long last!

I was approached last year by a commissioning editor from Icon Books, who publish the illustrated Graphic Guides series. My editor (and may I tell you how cool it is to use those words?) was looking for someone to write the text of a new Introducing Epigenetics entry in the series, and found me via my articles for The Guardian (so, many thanks are due to Jenny, Richard, and Stephen for setting that whole thing up!). I wrote the text last summer, did a major round of edits over Christmas and New Year, and am now waiting to see the illustrations that my very talented co-author Oliver Pugh is currently working on! The book’s coming out on February 2nd in the UK, and on March 14th in Canada, Australia, and the US. Details for other countries TBC.

The process was tough – it took up 100% of my evenings and weekends for several months, and I had to pass on lots of really fun invitations – but really fun. Due partly to needing a break after the two writing/editing sprints and partly to a ridiculous 6 month cluster of grant deadlines at work, I’ve taken a break from writing anything of substance since the edits were finished in early January (which you may have noticed). However, I’m looking forward to getting back into writing Guardian and other blog posts when I get back from my August and September travels (a holiday followed by being on the organizing committee of two conferences in, what else, epigenetics). I have a list of ideas, from my experiences volunteering at the last federal election to book reviews and more. I just need to get back into the groove!

I wrote a book, you guys! Properly, this time! Yay!

Posted in blog buddies, personal, publishing, science, writing | 7 Comments

Voting didn’t feel like enough this time

There’s a federal election in Canada tomorrow. I’ve always been very interested in politics, but this time around I feel more invested than ever before. Specifically, I want Harper out, with extreme prejudice. (If you don’t follow Canadian politics and aren’t sure what a politician could do to inspire such hatred, this recent Guardian article is a great place to start).

Things are scarily close, though, and there’s a very real danger that the centre and left could split the vote again (Harper got a majority government last time with 39% of the popular vote on a 60% voter turn-out – i.e. less than a quarter of eligible voters chose his party. Hopefully we’ll end up with a government that wants to explore electoral reform). I’m nervous and antsy, and have been so throughout this entire (longest ever) election campaign.

I always knew I was going to vote for the New Democratic Party (NDP). I overlap with them, the Liberals, and the Greens on various issues, but the NDP are the best overall match to my values (as depicted by my answers to this year’s Vote Compass survey).

In addition, my local candidate Don Davies is a good guy and a great local representative – very responsive and hard-working. If I lived in another riding I would be seriously thinking about voting strategically to block the Tories, but luckily I don’t have to do that in Vancouver Kingsway, where the Liberals have come in third in the last couple of elections. Yay for getting to vote the way I want to, even in an outdated first-pass-the-post system!

So, my vote was already secure (in fact I’ve already voted for Don, in the advance polls last weekend). But this time, voting didn’t seem like enough. Yelling at my TV during every Harper commercial and ranting on social media (sorry, non-Canadian Facebook friends) didn’t seem like enough either. I don’t just want Harper out, I want to help make it happen. So I’ve put my money, my time, and my vacation days where my mouth is:

  • I helped set up, serve hot dogs, and clean up at Don’s campaign launch BBQ back in August, giving myself a mild case of heat stroke in the process (I shouldn’t have cycled there and back – I’d have been OK if I’d taken the bus! It was a crazy hot summer this year).
  • I ordered a honking great sign for our front yard. I hadn’t done this for a federal campaign before, but I displayed my first ever political yard sign during the municipal elections last year, when I felt bad for being too busy to volunteer with Vision Vancouver as I had the time before. It already feels like a normal thing to do!
  • I attended Tom Mulcair’s first rally in Vancouver in August. It was my first ever political rally and I had no idea what to expect! There seemed to be a lot of regulars there who all knew each other, but I found some people to talk to. (One of them was a very new citizen and seemed a bit confused – she asked me if Green party leader Elizabeth May would be speaking! Sadly, she didn’t show – I don’t vote Green, but I love May. She’s awesome). The introductory speakers (two new local candidates and one of Mulcair’s sisters) were good, but I thought Mulcair himself was playing it a bit too safe. The NDP were leading the polls at the time and he seemed overly cautious, at least to me. I wanted to see Angry Tom! Still an interesting experience though. I didn’t go to the next two Vancouver rallies, although I would have gone yesterday if I wasn’t still recovering from a cold – instead I went for my election day training then straight home to lie on the sofa with a blanket and a cup of lemon tea.
  • I donated money to the local and national NDP campaigns – not very much at all in the grand scheme of things, but better than nothing.
  • I took part in one of several “transit blitzes”, handing out fliers about NDP transit strategy outside a SkyTrain station one evening.
  • I went out door-to-door canvassing one fine sunny afternoon. Not so much trying to convince people to vote for Don (although we did a bit of that too) – more just asking people who they were planning to vote for so HQ could update their records and plan more targeted door-to-door campaigns. I was pretty nervous at the beginning, but it was actually really fun! They put three of us newbies with Vision Vancouver’s Nikki Sharma, who is super nice and has a ton of campaign experience. Everyone we met was very polite, even the people who said “definitely voting Conservative” (I imagine it’s a different story in other parts of the world!), and as an added bonus we got to have a wee nosy at lots of people’s homes and gardens, which I thoroughly enjoyed. If I wasn’t in the middle of an unprecedentedly ridiculous grant deadline cluster (13 grants in 3 months) I would have done more of this!
  • I went to the all candidates debate for my riding – another first for me! I went with a friend who was on the fence between NDP and Green, but who left leaning towards the NDP. Don was the best candidate by far – very personable and polished (experience pays), spoke without notes, answered the questions asked. The Green candidate was nice but waffly and vague, while the Liberal candidate read pre-prepared answers from notes, even if they didn’t really address the questions asked. (It was fairly clear from the first question onwards that the Liberals and Greens aren’t running their strongest candidates in Vancouver Kingsway, no doubt choosing to focus their efforts and resources in more winnable ridings). The Libertarian candidate was atrocious – short, vague, non-answers – and the Marxist-Leninist representative was all over the place. The Communist Party candidate, Kimball Cariou, was unexpectedly awesome though! He holds the Canadian record for the most consecutive unsuccessful federal election campaigns (this is his 12th, all in the same riding) and while some of the things he said were quite outrageously radical, he was very genuine and passionate. I submitted a question about how the candidates’ parties will reintegrate science and evidence into policy decisions when the Harper era ends, and Cariou’s answer was definitely the most vehemently anti-Harper, so points for that. (The NDP and Green reps also gave good answers. The Liberal candidate read something about healthcare from his notes. The other two seemed entirely baffled).
    You’ll notice I didn’t mention the Conservative candidate. That’s because he didn’t show up. Apparently he hasn’t shown up to a single event, including the ones organized by local high schools for their students. Apparently this is a nation-wide phenomenon – orders from the top, doncha know.
  • I’m burning a vacation day to volunteer all day tomorrow. I’m an outside scrutineer and a count scrutineer, which will involve spending the day going to known supporters’ addresses to encourage them to get out and vote, and then observing the count at one of the many polling stations in the riding to make sure there are no shenanigans. I’ll be on the go from 8 am until whenever the count finishes (polls close at 7pm), and then heading downtown for the Vancouver NDP results party, which hopefully will be very celebratory!

If Harper retains power I will no doubt feel like I should have done more. Hopefully it won’t come to that. I’d obviously prefer Mulcair over Liberal leader Trudeau, but if Trudeau’s our prime minister on Tuesday morning it will be such an improvement over Harper that it’ll be hard to feel too disappointed about it! Especially if he’s heading a minority government with support from the NDP and Greens (a reasonably likely outcome), so that we can finally start to see some compromise and co-operativity in our government.

We can dream, eh?

Fingers and toes all crossed for tomorrow! ABC!

Posted in Canada, politics, science | 4 Comments

Book reviews!

An inner monologue, recently: “oh! I have a blog! I should write something. But the most exciting thing that happened this year isn’t really bloggable yet; the second-most exciting thing was the wedding in England of a very dear friend who would not want her wedding photos posted on the internet, and also that seems too long ago to write about now; and most of the other things that happened this year involve grants, and no-one wants to hear about that even though I did set a new department record by submitting six grants in the same week this week.

I have read quite a lot of books, though. Maybe I’ll blog some book reviews”.

(Yes, my inner monologues contain semi-colons).

So, here you go! In no particular order, but now with ratings 🙂

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North. 10/10

This is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I started it during my aforementioned trip to England, and could barely put it down. At one point I took it out of my bag to read during lunch in the café in the British Museum, and an hour and a half later had to remind myself that I was surrounded by some of the most interesting objects in the world and could read the book some other time. It was a tough call though.

The eponymous Harry is born in the North of England between the two world wars, grows up poor, survives WWII, grows old, and dies… and then is born again. Same body, same time, same place, same life. And then again. And again. In his early lives Harry struggles to understand, seeking out answers in all the countries and religions of the world. In later lives, he learns to exploit the situation and meets some fellow travellers, called Ourobourans.

It’s ever so cleverly done: Groundhog Day meets The Time Traveller’s Wife, but better than both – whole lifetimes repeated instead of a single day, and concerning broad swathes of human history instead of one couple’s love story. The meat of the story concerns Harry’s attempts to prevent a fellow Ourobouran from destroying the world, but the real joy of the book lies in how cleverly North has worked out the logistics of how this kind of existence would actually work. For example, one device is that Ourobourans can pass messages forwards and backwards in time. A young child visits a dying elder, giving them a message from the child’s future that the elder can take back to the year of their own rebirth, so that they can find a dying elder during the childhood of their next life and send the message back even further. “At last, something new to talk about!”, exclaims one such dying elder when he first receives the message of the end of the world.

I’ve just started North’s new book, Touch, which I’m really enjoying so far. Again, the logistics of having a rare kind of gift are explored in a delightfully clever way.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell. 7.5/10

I think I’d have enjoyed this new book by the author of Cloud Atlas more if I hadn’t read it immediately after Harry August. It contains a similar theme of a small community of people who live multiple lives, except that they’re reborn as different people in different places and times with each new life, but just wasn’t as satisfying.

I really enjoyed the first half of the book, with its initial hints that something is not as it seems followed by a gradual unfolding of the nature of the mystery, and I also liked the final section, set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic future. However, the penultimate section spoiled the overall experience for me. There was a very sudden and jarring change of pace, with lots of breathless action interspersed with some long information dumps explaining what was happening. I enjoyed the slower, more gradual revelations of the earlier chapters a lot more. It was as if Mitchell suddenly realized “crap, I’d better explain some of this stuff before I can wrap up the rest of the story” and then just sort of rushed through it. Great characters, good story, and some superb writing – shame about that one section though.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. 7/10

OK so I’m a bit dim sometimes. This was a book club pick, and I read more than half of it thinking it was a novel rather than an autobiography. I only realized my mistake after I complained to a friend that it was a bit disjointed and didn’t really flow logically! Needless to say, I liked it better after the reason for that became clear (and after I read the part describing the drive back from Mexico, which was hilarious). There were still some unsatisfying parts – really, you lived in a junkyard with a bunch of feral kids for a few months and barely even mentioned it in passing? – but I did enjoy it, and I’ve bought the next installment (but haven’t read it yet).

The funniest part was at the book club meeting in Beth’s apartment. Each of the “book club discussion points” that Beth found on the internet could have been a PhD thesis. One of them was something like “to what extent do issues of race, gender, and class intersect in this book, and in that time period in American history in general?” We laughed and laughed as Beth read down the list. We’re not a very serious book club.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker. 7.5/10

A re-telling of the Pride and Prejudice story, but from the point of view of the Bennett family’s servants. The original story is seen in glimpses – oh, Mr. Collins has arrived! ooh, here comes Mr. Darcy to propose for the first time! – but the real action takes place downstairs, where the staff are scrubbing Miss Elizabeth’s muddy petticoats and conducting romances of their own. Light and frothy (except for the chapters set in the war that Mr. Wickham et al. were supposed to be preparing for), and very enjoyable except for the less than kind take on Mr. Bennett (oh, Mr. Bennett, how could you?!).

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. 5/10

Weird book. A friend of mine recommended it very enthusiastically when she was about halfway through, but her tone seemed to have changed when she’d finished reading it and asked me if I was enjoying it. I was about halfway through it myself at that point and said that yes I was, very much – but then it all went wrong.

The first half is lots of fun, with a really interesting structure, but then it just gets sort of messy and frustrating (and preachy. Very preachy). The topic is animal experimentation, and the flip side point of view that “the lab in question has done great work on Parkinson’s – these are not easy questions” is barely mentioned in passing. I ended up more annoyed than anything. The friend who recommended it agrees, and we both learned a valuable lesson about being sure to read the whole book before recommending anything to others!

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee. 3.5/10

I avoided all the media hoopla about this book in an attempt to avoid spoilers. I was aware that there was some controversy over whether the book should have been published, but didn’t know any of the details. I ended up wishing that I’d paid more attention so I could have avoided reading this (and thus spared my book club from reading it, too – this was my most recent pick. Sorry, ladies). There were some good elements, but the pacing and voice were all over the place. The editor who said, “I’m not going to publish this, but you can obviously write and hey that back story sounds pretty interesting” made the right call.

Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels. 8/10

I was slightly dubious about this book club pick, wondering how interesting the fictionalized version of the invention of the theremin could really be. But it was actually a very good read! The inventor himself, Lev Termen, didn’t exactly make for the most charismatic and engaging character in literary history, but the book’s very well and smoothly written and the settings and story are very interesting, especially after Termen returns to the USSR. Definitely recommended.

How to Build a Girl, by Caitlin Moran. 8/10

This is a riot! A working class British teenager reinvents herself as hard drinking, hard partying music critic Dolly Wild and goes off on a hilarious crazy sex-fueled adventure – until it all goes horribly wrong. The only thing that spoiled it was that the author seemed to suddenly try to wring some kind of serious message out of it at the very last possible moment, when it might have worked better as pure frothy fun.

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Missed opportunity

From my Facebook feed:


It should totally be called a beehemoth! Whoever first called it a wasp moth sucks!

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Conspiracy deathmatch

I realized recently that, in the best tradition of fighting fire with fire, it’s possible to counter some conspiracy theories by invoking other conspiracy theories. The best two examples I’ve come up with so far are as follows:

  • The anti-vaccination movement is just an Illuminati plot to thin the ranks of the masses via the resurgence of preventable disease! The same is probably also true of the persistent cancer-hoax myth that encourages people to forego conventional treatment. Don’t let the Illuminati win – vaccinate, sheeple!
  • Of course the moon landing was real! NASA got there by secretly translating and implementing the wisdom left to us by ancient aliens in the form of Egyptian hieroglyphics, duh. All attempts to convince people that the moon landing was faked are actually designed to prevent us from learning the truth about these mysterious beings and their other technological gifts to us, which are currently being kept from the public by NASA and other government agencies.

These are the best matches I could come up with, but there must be other effective pairings out there too. Add yours in the comments!

Posted in medicine, pseudoscience, quacks, science, silliness, technology | 2 Comments