Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

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.


The Planet In A Pebble by Jan Zalasiewicz

Having read two of Jan Zalasiewicz’s book before, I had high hopes for this one. The content of Planet In A Pebble is excellent, as before, but the writing style leaves a lot to be desired.

Zalasiewicz is a geologist who has done brilliant work popularising esoteric concepts in geology and palaeontology like mass spectrometry, isotope decay and strata identification. This book takes a single pebble from a Welsh beach and in thirteen chapters describes not only every process leading to its creation but every iota of information that can be extracted from it. In terms of the content, it is fascinating.

But the book is a bit of a struggle to read. At every opportunity Zalasiewicz adds comments in parenthesis or between dashes, 99% of which are either unnecessary, whimsical, or which could be incorporated into a better sentence structure. Usually I’m not bothered by writing style, but this book is in desperate need of an editor to cut out all Zalasiewicz’s clutter. To be fair, some sections are worse than others, but I really noticed it and it really irritated me. Which is a shame, as this is exactly the sort of book I’d like to see doing well.

For content, I would definitely give a 4* rating though.


The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough

Written by an author with a lot of experience of psychology and related disciplines, this fascinating book covers pretty much everything currently known about voices in our inner mental worlds – which, it turns out, is not very much. The final section of the book in fact is a survey of the considerable amount of work that still needs doing.

Two main theories characterise the book. The first theory is that inner voice is something children acquire as they internalise their normal speaking voice. This, the author suggests, leads to our inner monologue… or, more accurately, our inner dialogues. But as Fernyhough begins to unpick what we think we know about our inner voices he shifts towards a second theory, which is that the phenomenon is far more complex than we realise, involving more than just words and sound. By the end of the book he leans towards the notion that our inner voices (and there are always more than one) are one aspect of more which is internalised: other types of sensory and cognitive perception for instance. Inner voices come with much more baggage than just words.

You would think that a book with this title would focus on schizophrenia and other illnesses, but actually such conditions are a relatively small part of the deal here. That’s not so say the author doesn’t have much insight into the area – he does, and the insights are well worth reading. But so little is known and agreed about how our inner dialogue works there is clearly much more to come.

Fernyhough also touches on how creative people hear, perceive and use inner voices in their work – particularly authors. These sections are short, but fascinating.

A couple of niggles. Even one mention in one sentence of the fact that all human beings have a model of the world inside their head would have greatly helped. The latter chapters of the book, where “whole people” are mentioned as existing in our inner worlds (as indeed they do), would have benefitted from such a statement. It would have helped to put the whole argument of the book into a better perspective. I also think a few mentions of the considerable difference in how introverts and extroverts perceive their inner worlds would have helped. But these are small points, and likely will be addressed as psychologists begin to work with what this excellent author has put forward.



Psychoanalysis & Zen Buddhism by Erich Fromm

The beauty of this book is exactly the opposite of what a reader might expect. It would seem from the title to be esoteric, even part unintelligible to the average reader, but in fact it’s a beautifully concise exposition of Erich Fromm’s core understanding of the human condition. He opens with a survey of psychoanalysis, relates it to Freud’s work and to his own, describes his core understanding of what he calls ‘social man’ and ‘universal man,’ delves into the three types of social filter which act upon our conscious minds, then compares and contrasts his version of psychoanalysis with Zen Buddhism. It’s a triumph of lucid exposition.

I remember buying this many years ago with another of his works, thinking that this would be the less interesting of the two. In fact, that position was soon reversed. This deserves to be a classic text.