Notes from sf author Stephen Palmer

Category: Just Finished Reading

The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron

This book is related to Susan Cain’s Quiet, which I first read about five years ago, and which I recently added to my Inspirational Books category. The Highly Sensitive Person was written a decade and a half before Quiet, but it is a sibling book; and it is mentioned a lot in Quiet…

Elaine Aron is the research psychologist who reframed the rather negative interpretation of sensitivity as “reactivity” or similar, so that a more compassionate attitude could be taken to people with the trait. The highly sensitive person has no choice about their stance. Sensitivity is a matter of brain biology and chemistry. My own experience suggests there could be a genetic element, i.e. it could run in families, if only as a recessive characteristic. But whatever the sources, being highly sensitive is both a blessing and a curse.

The book opens with a call to change the sense that something is wrong with the highly sensitive person into something being right (or at least, okay). The trait is analysed in itself, then in infants and children, before the author tries to reframe it in the context of making your way in the world. Highly sensitive people have character traits – for instance a need for peace and quiet, for reflection, for solitude at the end of a long day – which most other people either don’t want or don’t understand: Aron estimates that around 15% of people are highly sensitive. She goes on to explore shyness, the highly sensitive person at work and in relationships, and in life generally.

Later chapters focus on counselling and even medication, and here the book does get a little “American psychobabble” for my taste, although that could just be my reserved Britishness coming through. But the author’s heart is in the right place, and she’s spot on with most of her observations.

This is another great book for people who find the world overwhelming a lot of the time, who need space and peace and quiet nature and periods of solitude. It is written with much compassion and understanding.


The Discovery Of Death In Childhood And After by Sylvia Anthony

I read this as research for a short novel, but I would likely have read it anyway had I stumbled across it. A fascinating (albeit slightly old-fashioned) look at how the concept of death is acquired by young children, which then sophisticates as they get older. There are plenty of accounts of real children and their thoughts and sayings, plus a good deal of psychological and cultural work. The former is a bit limited, being mostly centred around Freud and Piaget, but it is interesting nonetheless, while the cultural sections are very interesting. All in all, this was well worth tracking down.


Victoria R.I. by Elizabeth Longford

An enjoyable biography of an interesting character in remarkable times. It was a little more detailed than I realised when I picked it up, but that’s no fault of the book. Certainly the author knows her subject extremely well. I don’t imagine this could be topped in terms of coverage.


The Doctrine Of DNA by Richard Lewontin

In The Doctrine Of DNA – Biology As Ideology, famed geneticist and evolutionary scientist Professor Richard Lewontin demolishes the widespread notion that human nature – including a whole panoply of social factors such as hierarchical societies – is determined by our genes. It’s a superb polemical attack on the crazed ideology of biological determinism, with more than a few swipes at how Western societies put the individual at the centre of things instead of having a more reasonable balance between individual and community.

The book is concise. Based on a series of lectures given in 1990, it develops the themes of skepticism, the uses of genetics, the scientific relationships between cause and effect, the social uses of science, and the relationship between the perception of science as pure and neutral and how it is actually used. Some pretty extraordinary examples are given of this latter relationship, showing how capitalist users of technology exploit both the environment and the people they leech off.

The author’s ire then falls on the human genome programme, pointing out the inherent flaws in a plan that involves creating a “normal human genome” description when we’re all genetically different. He concludes by pointing out how science education via textbooks simply repeats biological deterministic ideology as though it were proven fact.

A fantastic read, a devastating critique of the nonsense spouted by many, and a required read for anyone in the field of science. I almost never give 5* reviews: this is getting the full five.


Shell Shock by Wendy Holden

In Wendy Holden’s superb Shell Shock, the history of mental conditions in the armed services is examined, starting (after a brief introduction to 19th century and earlier references) with World War 1, then going forwards.

Although I read this book for research, I think I likely would have read it anyway, as it deals with psychological issues that can affect anybody – and because it opens up the near absurd world of masculinity, war, repression and sheer blind stupidity.

The three chapters dealing with World War 1 are particularly revealing because they show the barbaric attitudes of officers and the armed services generally at the beginning of the 20th century, which, combined with widespread ignorance, led in many cases to a worsening of already terrible mental crises. The chapters dealing with World War 2 are also excellent. Personally I was less interested with latter chapters, but they were uniformly excellent and fair-minded, highlighting the continuing avoidance of humanity and responsibility in the armed forces.

Although this book has a specific remit, it in fact deals with the childish, inhumane and delusional attitudes of men as much as anything military. The folly of men is clear on every page. With the exception of such fine characters as W.R. Rivers and Tom Pear, it is virtually a manual on how not to be a human being.

Highly recommended as an introduction to this area, and as an insight into extreme times. This book will be a vital support to my soon-to-be-written novel Tommy Catkins.


The Construction Of Life And Death by Dorothy Rowe

OK. So this is the biggie. Life and death.

One of Dorothy Rowe’s early books (1982), The Construction Of Life And Death takes a look at how we factor the meaning of death into our lives, delivered with the author’s clear-sighted compassion but also through her talks with various of her patients.

Unlike a lot of other authors in this field, Rowe allows lengthy conversations to make her points, conversations which sometimes go on for pages. She talks to patients (many of them suffering from depression, which is her area of specialism), to religious people, to members of religious hierarchies, and even to another counsellor – one of her colleagues, who gives a particularly enlightening interview. Anxiety is a particular symptom of many of her patients, and there are positive outcomes and negative ones; and Rowe is disarmingly honest at the end of the book about her own early foibles.

For people like me, fascinated with how and why spiritual ideas and then organised religion have dominated human affairs for the last 40,000 years – at least – this is a must-read. Rowe has a clarity of thought and a humanity rarely seen amongst authors of books like these, which are most often found in the self-help section of bookshops.

If you’ve grappled with these issues, check this book out, then any of her other works. Highly recommended.


Crows by Candace Savage

In this short work, various elements of science, observation, folklore and legend are woven together into a very enjoyable tapestry. The science is light, the observation is fascinating, and the folklore suggests kernels of truth about these fascinating and highly intelligent birds. Photographs, drawings and works of art illustrate the work. All in all, an enjoyable book.


The Girl Of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

In The Girl of Ink & Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, young Isabella, daughter of a cartographer, dreams of her father’s mysterious maps as she lives on an unspecified island set in a great sea. This environment has nods to the real world – Amrica and Afrik – but is essentially an imagined place.

When her friend vanishes after an enigmatic killing (possibly by people, possibly by beasts) Isabella finds herself following an island myth as she disguises herself as a boy to accompany the expedition to find her friend. But this expedition is run by the grim Governer of the island (a man of Spanish, ie colonial heritage) and the task – not least because it heads off into the Forgotten Territories – is fraught with peril.

The novel is aimed at the younger end of the YA market, I think, and is a very nice read. The indigenous cultural elements are all handled with great sympathy, and, although there seem to be magical elements, it’s not immediately obvious whether they are real or not; and certainly towards the end of the book there is one obvious explanation for what is going on…

Overall: a really good read. Original and enjoyable.


Eva by Peter Dickinson

I was disappointed by this book. I’m a big fan of Peter Dickinson – his The Weathermonger is among my all-time favourite books – but this novel was not terribly engaging, and even in places rather dull, despite the potential of the scenario. In a nutshell: Eva, a girl of about 13, has a terrible accident, and the only way to save her is to “implant” her into a chimp body. The novel then details what follows.

I think the main problem I had with the book was the old-fashioned writing style, which had none of the zip and zing of the author’s other works. It was all tell and no show; and the tell was dull and in places rather vague. (I found myself increasingly perplexed by the rapturous reviews given by other readers.)

The novel in fact is more of a satire on advertising, money and media than anything else. There is little on the human/chimp “interface,” and what there is could best be described as trite. First published in 1988, it seems to be more of a reaction against gross Capitalism and the whole ‘eighties “loadsamoney” culture, with specific barbs against advertising and media manipulation.

A shame. Still, Dickinson remains one of the all-time great children’s authors.


Cogheart by Peter Bunzl

I spotted this last week in the Windsor Waterstones, and because it looked similar to my upcoming The Girl With Two Souls – though also because it did look like it might be a good read from the blurb on the back cover – I bought it. And it is a good read!

The setting is an alternate Victorian England, where concealed inventor’s daughter Lily and vertigo-suffering clockmaker’s son Robert both live. Following a bit of a to-do at the school she has been sent to (under an assumed name), Lily finds herself caught up in a fast-moving plot involving two nasty toughs, Roach & Mould, and a mystery sourced in the mechanical marvels devised by her father. After a terrible set-back, she meets Robert and snooty mechanical fox Malkin, to begin a helter skelter chase across a dark Victorian Britain. The plot basics are flagged up, but not obviously, and there is plenty to think about along the way.

This is a really good debut novel. The plot rarely lets up once it’s got going, and the steampunk tropes are light and well used. It’s aimed at readers around 9 to 12, but this shouldn’t stop you reading it if you like a page-turner. Flaws are few – the opening quarter is a bit slow to get going, and Mrs Rust’s “cogwheels and conundrums!” do become a little wearing – but these are minor faults and can be fixed in the sequel Moonlocket, which is out next year.

All in all, an auspicious debut, which I much enjoyed. It seems steampunk still has a lot going for it; and given that the author is a film maker, we should probably expect a pretty stunning film version at some point.