Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

My Life As A Ten-Year-Old Boy by Nancy Cartwright

I came quite late to the Simpsons. In the early days – the first half of the ’90s – I thought to myself, “I don’t want to watch the antics of a bratty American boy.” How wrong I was back then. Soon, after watching a few episodes, I realised the series was about far more than just Bart. It was about America, and even, on occasion, about humanity itself.

Since then I’ve become a confirmed fan. The series, like no other American television I’ve seen, has British elements of humour – wit, irony, intelligent charm. In My Life As A Ten-Year-Old-Boy, the voice of Bart, Nancy Cartwright, lifts the lid on what it was like at the outset and how the series developed.

The book is written in an informal style, almost as if the author is speaking it. Some reviewers have held that against her, and on occasion the style can be a little wince-inducing. But overall I think it does add to the charm of the account. In any event, the story overall is a fascinating one, with much to recommend it. Certainly for any Simpsons fan this is a must-read.



A Brief History Of Everyone Who Ever Lived

A Brief History Of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

I was hoping to like this book a lot, and I do like the content, but the writing style… ouch. Adam Rutherford, for all his undoubted skills as a radio presenter, has convinced himself that he’s the world’s most amusing writer of prose, which, for me, reduced the enjoyment of reading the science considerably. Because he’s not amusing.

That science is fascinating though – Rutherford deserves the adoring comments of his many famous fans inside the front jacket. But the text is not only cringingly unfunny in places where the author believes he is being hilarious, it is peppered with pointless footnotes – and Rutherford is no Jack Vance.

So for style I’m giving 2** and for content 4***, which averages out at a somewhat underwhelming 3***. A shame.


The Lives of Erich Fromm by Lawrence J. Friedman

I discovered Erich Fromm in the ‘80s, and immediately fell for his no-nonsense brand of humanism and liberalism (disguised as Marxism, as he was a follower of Marx). His work has inspired me ever since, not least The Sane Society, with its ground-breaking and daring declaration of the human condition. A few months ago I discovered by accident that there was a biography of the great man; buying it was a no-brainer.

The book is quite academic in tone, but not so much that the general reader can’t enjoy it. A great amount of work went into the writing of it, as the author observes in his introduction, but that work pays off as the contradictions and brilliance of the man come to light.

Fromm, for all his vision and wisdom, was no angel; something of a surprise to me, who knew nothing of his personal life. Letters written by Fromm and by his friends illuminate this part of the biography. Fromm also ignored a lot of health issues during various intensive spells of work, and this biography conveys those periods of his life very well.

I suppose the readership of the book is essentially going to be followers of Fromm, and perhaps those in the psychoanalysis world for whom the shadow of Freud still looms large. The political aspects of his life are particularly interesting, and often surprising, especially during the Cold War period, but I suspect those will fade in times to come. His work on the fundamentals of the human condition however will never fall into obscurity. He really was way ahead of his time, and this superb biography illustrates that very nicely.


London In The 19th Century by Jerry White

For me this was more research about Victorian times, but the book is a marvellous collection – written in themed chapters and time-lined from 1800 to 1899 – covering how London changed during the 19th century. It covers everything from architecture to government, charity and religion to riot and prostitution, homeless children to the wealthy in their perfect, posh streets. The section on the working class attitude to charity and religion was particularly eye-opening.

Lots of period detail, a terrific eye when it comes to poverty, class and power, and with a great story to tell – very readable and very enjoyable. You wouldn’t have to be researching for a novel to enjoy this book.


Childhood & Death In Victorian England

Childhood & Death In Victorian England by Sarah Seaton

I read this as research for my upcoming novels Monique Orphan and Monica Orvan. The title of the book says it all. These were grim times for children, who not only had to cope with extremes of poverty, exploitation and lack of opportunity, but who also had to deal with the same issues modern children experience in Britain: a culture which doesn’t like children, and which, if not following the old maxim “seen but not heard,” still manages to treat them too often as something to ignore.

One aspect of Victorian life that comes over strongly in this book is how the role of women as uneducated baby-producers limited them to a life of social imprisonment, fit only for domestic duties. But ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance led to millions of appalling lives, not only for women, but for the children they bore.

Some of the stories related here are extraordinary. The male-created need for birth legitimacy led to some terrible crimes. In an ironic conclusion, the author remarks on how little seems to have been learned since 1901 when it comes to looking after children. Too many readers of her book would agree with her.


Imaginary Companions by Marjorie Taylor

Imaginary Companions & The Children Who Create Them,

by Marjorie Taylor

A fascinating book, read as research for my upcoming work Monique Orphan, but well worth it in its own right. Marjorie Taylor, a psychologist by training, looks at the phenomenon of imaginary companions from a broad perspective, and right from the beginning she picks away at the cultural idea that a child with an imaginary companion must necessarily be a loner, alone, or have some underlying mental condition. She is blunt about the world of media – film especially – getting the phenomenon of imaginary companions wrong. In fact, as her thorough research shows, children with imaginary companions are slightly better at navigating the social world than those without. Imaginary companions are common, a sign of a normal and active, albeit relatively unformed imagination. There are many reasons why children create imaginary companions, all dealt with in depth here. An interesting digression is the gender difference between girls (who tend to create independent companions) and boys (who tend to impersonate their own creations). Subsequent chapters deal with the phenomenon in older children and in adults, with a particularly revealing section on the nature of adult creation – eg. that of the author.

Properly researched and referenced, this is a terrific book, both academic and thorough, but also easy to read for the non-academic reader, who might be interested in memories of their own childhood or who can see their own children creating imaginary companions.

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The Age Of Bowie by Paul Morley

I was never a huge fan of David Bowie when I was young, but even then I appreciated that he had something utterly unlike other artists. But I didn’t know then what it was.

I do now, of course, like so many others who have looked back at the man’s extraordinary career following his untimely death. A quote of his I remember in particular: “the place for an artist to be is just outside their comfort zone.” I’ve tried to follow this in my career as an author, at first without realising it, but now with a kind of Brit-ironic shrug. An artist is an explorer, and there were very few explorers like David Bowie.

The Age Of Bowie is written by one of the most experienced of authors, who, as he explains at length in the opening chapters, loved and followed Bowie from the early days. This work is mostly about Bowie, but it is also about the way Morley found and appreciated Bowie, which serves as a template for all of us around his age.

Paul Morley can be rather wordy, and some would call his style in books and on screen pretentious. In this book however, despite in a number of places there being three paragraphs where one would do, the wordiness is impossible to criticise, because part of the deal here is to present Bowie in his times. It is not pretentious. Rather, the exuberance of words stands for Morley’s sincere love of his subject. Everything matters.

A book for fans of Bowie, and for fans of music, but perhaps above all for those who want an insight into the truth about creativity and everything surrounding it.

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Davie Bowie

The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan


(Same problem as Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Jerusalem).

silk roads

Globe: Life In Shakespeare’s London by Catharine Arnold

Super book about the history of the original Globe Theatre, opening with the state of theatre and drama when Shakespeare was young (almost non-existent), through plans for various theatres in London (mostly controversial, if not actively opposed), and closing with the great period of drama in London that ended with the demise of James I and the approaching Civil War/Commonwealth period.

I liked this a lot. Great on character and period detail, it’s superbly written and very readable. The sights and sounds of the period are well evoked and the narrative, given in chronological order, is excellent. Highly recommended for pretty much anyone!

globe cover

How To Make A Human Being by Christopher Potter

This book describes itself as “a body of evidence,” which is a very good description, but it is also intended as a way to “escape the net of scientific reductionism.” I must admit, I bought this book because it was about the human condition, but I was as much attracted to it because of the above tag-lines.

The book is divided into three sections, the first concerning the physics of the universe, the second on the nature of life and consciousness, and the third on various aspects of human life. The first section deals with quantum mechanics and many other theories, but it is presented in an easy-to-read way. In fact the entire book is composed of short reflections on a topic – some just one line – intertwined with quotes from various luminaries. This technique works brilliantly, because one of the author’s wishes is to make his book a platform for mental jumping. This is a work intended to provoke as much thought as possible. The second section deals with the nature of bodies and of minds, detouring into perception, free will and human behaviour; and this a particularly fascinating section, as is the third, which looks at such topics as nature, deities, love, faith, eternity, death, and – in a particularly telling conclusion – humility.

I really enjoyed this book: thought provoking, superbly put together, sometimes amusing. As befits an author who wishes us to escape the net of scientific reductionism, there are plenty of digs at Richard Dawkins, all of which I was glad to see. But the overall range of quotes and sources is huge, making the book much more significant than it would otherwise have been. Highly recommended to all who want to think about the questions of life.