Wrap your brain around your brain: Thought provoking books on the human brain

Understanding the human brain was always going to be a topic which … well which fascinates the human brain. If you need any proof of just how interesting we find it, just look at this list of recent library books on the topic.

Neuroscience is a hot topic and brain imaging has made it apparently explicable to us all – ooh look at that bit light up when he looks at a picture of his beloved.

It turns out its not that simple. Scientists,  theologians and philosophers are still arguing about some very basic definitions –  like whether the mind resides in the brain or if it is something else altogether, and do we really know what those glowing synapses are telling us? The final verdict could revolutionize our view of ourselves.

The prospect of understanding how we tick in a whole new way has led to some thought provoking questions. Recent books in our collection explore them:


Try some of them out, and wrap your brain around the topic of your brain.

One out of the box

Cover: Her MajestyReally out of the box. Kind colleagues who know that I hold Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in very high esteem alerted me to the arrival of Her Majesty.

It’s a book to gladden the hearts of book lovers who believe that reading a book on a device is all very well, but that nothing can match turning the paper pages of a behemoth.

Her Majesty tells the story of QEII’s  reign, mostly in very large and very beautiful photographs, but with some text. And it came in a  dull gold box with its very own plastic handle. Classy.

The box and the book have parted ways, but  really the box is a minor detail, even if it did have Her Majesty printed on the side. Packaging is all very well, but the book is the main thing here. It’s definitely for more than staunch (and strong) Royalists.

The sheer size and quality of the photographs make it an object of beauty worthy of a good long look. Getting it home may be another matter!

A half hour with Hugh Howey

Search catalogue for WoolMy first author interview was scary enough, but having to do it on the phone without those useful visual cues, and the whole experience became all the more challenging.  Hugh Howey, author of Wool and Shift was a very kind and patient man however, and he coped well with all my long-winded and rambling questions.

As a member of the team that purchases stock for the library I was particularly interested in Hugh’s approach to self publishing.

Although the library does buy e-books it is not always straight forward.  Publishers and authors have at times had a reluctance to sell e-books to  libraries as it will be borrowed as opposed to individuals purchasing their own titles.

Thankfully this is not an issue for Hugh, he is happy to get readers any way he can and sees libraries purchasing e-books as a boom for the writer. Random House has now picked up this series, but Hugh is totally committed to the self publishing route for authors. As an aside, the editors of his self published books are his wife and mother.

I was keen to find out what Hugh thought about libraries.  

Hugh grew up with three kids in his family with a mum who had several jobs and probably not a lot of spare cash. The library was his favourite place as a child. He reads widely and believes that to write you need to read, and used the analogy of playing football without having watched the game. Watching or reading is how you learn the tactics, get ideas and generally broaden your point of view.

When I was doing some background research I discovered that he makes great use of social media.

Hugh sees writing as an unsocial act and he enjoys connecting with people via his blog and Facebook page.  You can tell this – he responds promptly and seems to enjoy the interactions. He also keeps in contact with others writers via a forum called Kboards. Signing up with Random House has meant the opportunity to travel and meet many of his fans. Next time he plans to come south and bring his wife – we will hold him to that.

The latest book is Shift, and I inquired as to why he had decided to write a prequel at this point in the series.

Hugh felt that there was a need to explain the reasons behind Wool and the Silos before progressing with the series, he also wanted to give us a break from Juliet the main character, but you will be pleased to know that she does make a brief appearance at the end of Shift.

Dust, the last title will be published in October. Hugh is not a writer who is content to let his books evolve, he has already written the last chapter of Dust. He knows exactly where he is taking us. I asked if he considered himself an optimist (considering that both books so far have been quite dark), and he said he is – so I’m hoping for a happy ending!

Shift is more political than Wool. We learn why thousands of people were bunged into silos, and it’s not pretty.  Without giving the plot away, certain quarters of the Democratic Government feel that are one step ahead of the terrorists, and what they are about to do is for the good of humanity. I was curious to ask if this series would have been written if 9/11 had not happened, and Hugh agreed that yes the events of that day and afterwards has shaped him and had definitely helped create this series.  Although he follows politics, he is interested in how politics and political decisions shape people.

Wool and Shift are very visual books and I asked Hugh about his involvement in the proposed film directed by Ridley Scott.

Hugh said that writing for him is like watching a film and that he is a very visual writer. I wondered if he would therefore have a problem with someone else taking his vision and making it their own, but he has no problem with leaving the film completely up to Ridley Scott. Hugh is very happy for the film to stand on its own.

I was interested to know if Hugh agreed that there was a lot of snobbery around reading Science Fiction.

Hugh recounted working in a bookshop and making the decision to move all the great science fiction, eg  Isaac Asimov, Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick etc into the general fiction section. He hoped this would  break down the barriers between the so-called geeks and anoraks, and encourage readers to see that great fiction is just that – great fiction regardless of the genre. Librarians of course are completely hooked on genres and fitting books into categories, the likes of Hugh Howey could come as a bit of a challenge! Perhaps Wool and Shift would fit into what Margaret Atwood regards as speculative fiction, but in the end we agreed that  it is all semantics, and if you enjoy the book then that is what matters.

On that note my half hour was up. Hugh could now get on a plane and go home from his whirlwind tour. This is a writer who we will be hearing a lot more of –  a romance is in the process of being written and he’s rather fond of mystery and horror – something for everyone. I for one couldn’t be more delighted.

Christchurch – this week in history (29 April – 5 May)

29 April 1925
Rev J.K. Archer becomes Mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand’s first Labour mayor.

29 April 1934
Visit by George Bernard Shaw. He gave a nationwide radio broadcast from his civic reception in Christchurch.

29 April 1974
Cr. David Caygill, aged 25, becomes the city’s youngest ever acting Mayor (for 5 days).

Public Library, Christchurch, N.Z.
30 April 1875
New library building completed on the corner of Cambridge Terrace and Hereford Street. Designed by W.B. Armson.

30 April 1971
6000 protesters march against the war in Vietnam.

Anti-tour poster3 May 1985
6,000 Christchurch citizens rally against the All Black tour of South Africa.
View our collection of protest posters.

4 May 1932
Christchurch Tramway strike. One of the bitterest in the city’s history, it lasted 16 days. There were many injuries and arrests among the strikers. The tram sheds were barricaded with barbed wire, and trams were fitted with wire mesh screens over their windows to ward off attacks.

  • More April events in our Christchurch chronology.
  • More May events in our Christchurch chronology.

New graphic novels for April

The covers alone say so much about the diversity of imagination you can find in graphic novels. A selection from our latest April new titles.  If you haven’t explored this genre before I’d encourage you to give it go.

Kids’ Books: picks from our latest newsletter

Some picks from our April Kids’ Books newsletter:

Cover: Story of the Titanic Cover: All Stations! Distress! Cover: Twelve Dancing Princesses Cover: Where's the Meerkat? Cover: If the Shoe Fits Cover: Jinx Cover: Inside the Titanic Cover: Titanic Cover: It's Our Garden

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For more great reads for kids, check out our Fun to Read page – it links you to reading lists, if you likes, interactive quizzes and lots more.

Biography and Memoir: picks from our latest newsletter

Some picks from our April  Biography and Memoir newsletter:

Cover: The Eaves of Heaven Cover: An Imperial Concubine's tale Cover: Devangelical Cover: Young TitanCover: Marbles  Cover: Polly   Cover: The Real Jane Austen Cover: Give Me Everything You HaveCover: Vow

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For more great biographies and memoirs, check out our lists of winners of  the Costa Biography Award.

Canterbury heroes: Picturing Canterbury

Angus Tait Margaret Mahy Elsie Locke

Angus Tait, Margaret Mahy and Elsie Locke: Canterbury Heroes.

“We are in the trenches again …

… this time for a longer term, but it is a very easy life. In my present shelter there is actually a four-poster spring bed, and picture prints of distractingly pretty girls round the walls. What do you think of that, within two hundred yards of the Huns? … Of course we are only in the front line part of the time, but it really is the best place …

Letter to Hazel from Cecil Malthus, 11 June 1916
Letter to Hazel from Cecil Malthus, 11 June 1916

Timaru-born Cecil Malthus wrote two books about his war-time experiences. Born in 1890, he spent three years in service in the 1st Canterbury Battalion from 1914. The Canterbury College modern languages professor first published ANZAC: A retrospect in 1965. In the foreword of the book he wrote:

I offer nothing but the truth for those who want to know what the war was like for the average man. Readers can believe that whatever I relate of my own experience is very nearly the same as what happened to their own uncle or grandfather.

A collection of Malthus’ letters has been digitised and made available online by Christchurch City Libraries. The letters are penned to his future wife, Hazel Watters. Malthus died on 25 July 1976.

This collection of letters and documents dates from April 1914 to his discharge in April 1917. The collection is not complete, and portions of some letters are missing. The letters follow Malthus’ progress from training in New Zealand to his experiences throughout the war, including time in Egypt preparing for Gallipoli, and his time in France. Malthus was injured in September 1916 and returned to New Zealand in March 1917.

“My subject is war…

…And the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

Cover: Wildred Owen - PoemsThat quote from Wilfred Owen is on the monument to the war poets in Westminster Abbey. A line from Owen also provides the title for the 2010 book by Wellington author and academic Harry Ricketts – Strange meetings: the poets of the Great War.

Owen has always seemed the most tragic of the war poets, dying as he did just days before the end of the war. Is it true that his mother received the news of his death just as the bells were ringing to celebrate the Armistice?

The Great War has contined to provide the subject matter for some wonderful Cover: Regeneration Trilogyfiction, including the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker. The treatment of poet Siegfried Sassoon for shell shock  at Craiglockhart Hospital is one of the major themes of the novel, and Sassoon’s fictionalised autobiography, the Sherston trilogy,  is worth reading. Start with Memoirs of a fox hunting man.

Barker returned to the subject of the Great War in Life class and Toby’s room, both up to her usual standard.

A. S. Byatt’s The children’s book has Rupert Brooke (‘ the handsomest man in England’) as a bit player and ends with the return of the soldiers from the war. In a book of many fascinating (or irritating, depending on how you feel about staying on the subject,) digressions, Byatt’s listing of the names the soldiers gave to the trenches is among the most unusual.

Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong featured in the Big Read, which aimed to find Britain’s favourite book, and on Best British books 1980-2005. It’s sold a lot of copies, but it’s not one of my favourites; although Eddie Redmayne was in the T.V. series, which is a definite reason to watch it.

Do you have a favourite piece of fiction set in the Great War?