Tasty, bite-sized economics: Fifty things that made the modern economy

A History of the World in 100 Objects was my first foray into books that use something small to describe something big, and I’ve been reading them ever since.

Luckily this has proved to be a popular concept, with topics ranging from Fifty Plants That Changed the Course of History, Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee, to Banana: A Global History. Each book is like a museum exhibition with each chapter a different exhibit, perfect for dipping into and reading aloud interesting facts to your long-suffering friends.

My most recent read was a little out of my comfort zone — Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy, by Tim Harford.

Cover of Fifty things that made the modern economy by Tim Harford

Hearing the words “modern” and economy” generally gives me an expression similar to my cat after he’s eaten a moth, but luckily the content delivers. Harford writes in an incredibly engaging, conversational style. Often I slog through non-fiction books as the information density can be overwhelming even if fascinating, but Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is as readable as a novel. Each section is so short that I found it difficult to stop at the end of one chapter and not just continue on to the next.

Even more mundane-seeming inventions like the plough had far reaching effects on almost every aspect of society, a symptom of a changing life from nomadic to settled, and influencing gender relations as well as our diet (not necessarily for the better). In fact a lot of our steps forward as a species have unintentionally brought us a step back in other ways. We spend a lot less time preparing food due to ready-meals and supermarkets, but our nutrition has suffered as a result. I suppose one good thing is that by constantly creating new problems for ourselves, we’ll never run out of things to do.

Due to the nature of a long list each entry is by necessity relatively brief, but each builds on the previous chapters — Harford points out all the ways in which an invention is reliant on those that came before, or the perfect timing for an invention to take off. Some were invented several times before they caught on, and others it was only a matter of time before it was invented by someone. History is a mess of happy accidents, lucky timing and reinventing the wheel.
If you’re interested in economics, history or want to know why anyone could get excited about double-entry bookkeeping, I’d recommend dipping into Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy.

Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy
by Tim Harford
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781408709115

New year, new reads: Sci-fi, fantasy and mystery for teens

I’ve read so many YA books recently it’s difficult to choose which ones to blog about! I’ve made a list of my favourite teen reads in 2017 (all but one published last year and all highly recommended), so that frees me up to talk about some YA books from the new year.

If you like… science fiction

Cover of Martians Abroad

Martians Abroad by Carrie Vaughn

Polly is happy living in a colony on Mars, hoping one day to pilot a spaceship across the galaxy — but then her mother sends her and her twin brother to Earth to attend the prestigious Galileo Academy. Struggling to adapt (both socially and to the increase in gravity), Polly has to deal with more than just agoraphobia on her school field trips — something (or someone) seems to be targeting her and her group of friends. And each time, they’re raising the stakes…

If you like… fantasy set in Hungary

Cover of Blood Rose RebellionBlood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves

Anna Arden is unusual in being born into a prestigious magical family but having no magical ability herself — instead of casting spells, she breaks them. When she breaks her sister’s debutante spell she finds herself pretty unpopular with both her family and with noble magic society in general, so Anna finds herself packed off to Hungary with her grandmother. But Hungary might not be the best place to lie low, with resentment towards the Austro-Hungarian Empire rising. Soon Anna finds herself embroiled in a plot to overthrow the magic elite — and her magic-breaking ability might just be the key.

The second book in the trilogy (Lost Crow Conspiracy) is due to be published next month, so now’s a good time to start reading.

If you like… Sweeney Todd and demon librarians

Cover of Evil LibrarianEvil Librarian by Michelle Knudsen

A silly romp of a book reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Cynthia is amused when her best friend Annie falls in love with the new school librarian Mr. Gabriel, but amusement turns to horror when she realises Mr. Gabriel is actually a demon hell-bent on sucking the life force out of all the students and making Annie his demon bride. Luckily he also loves musicals, so Cynthia has until the opening night of the school production of Sweeney Todd to try and save her best friend and banish her demon(s).

If this sounds like your cup of tea be sure to grab new sequel Revenge of the Evil Librarian as well!

If you like… twisty turny books that turn your head inside out

Cover of Jane, UnlimitedJane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

This starts innocuously enough, with Jane being invited to stay at an old friend’s island mansion (as you do). Once there, however, it’s soon clear that there’s a lot more to the island that meets the eye — a cornucopia of mysteries await Jane’s investigative eye! And she investigates them all, the book gradually revealing more and more until she finally figures out the answer to the question she’s been asking all along — what really happened to her Aunt Magnolia?

If you like Jane, Unlimited then I’d also recommend Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall, which also involves aunts, mysteries and a bizarre house full of secrets, but set in Spain.

2017 Book Challenge

Reader, I need your help. I’ve been diligently ticking off the categories on this year’s reading challenge (Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge), but it’s getting incredibly close to 2018 and I’ve still got a few unfilled. If anyone has any good recommendations that fit the bolded themes please let me know in the comments so that I can whip through them before the new year! (Or if you’ve read any of the same books as me, let me know what you thought of them.)

  1. Read a book about sports. A Season of Daring Greatly, Ellen Emerson White
  2. Read a debut novel. True Letters from a Fictional Life, Kenneth Logan
  3. Read a book about books. Reading Allowed: True Stories and Curious Incidents from a Provincial Library, Chris Paling
  4. Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author. Nightlights, Lorena Alvarez
  5. Read a book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative. American Street, Ibi Zoboi
  6. Read an all-ages comic.
  7. Read a book published between 1900 and 1950. The Nine Tailors, Dorothy Sayers
  8. Read a travel memoir. Japan AI: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan, Aimee Major-Steinberger
  9. Read a book you’ve read before. Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones
  10. Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location. Kaitangata Twitch, Margaret Mahy
  11. Read a book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location. Leviathan Wakes, James S. A. Corey
  12. Read a fantasy novel. The Last Namsara, Kristen Ciccarelli
  13. Read a nonfiction book about technology. First, Catch Your Weka: A Story of New Zealand Cooking, David Veart (food technology counts, right?)
  14. Read a book about war. Firstborn, Brandon Sanderson
  15. Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+. Ramona Blue, Julie Murphy
  16. Read a book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country.
  17. Read a classic by an author of color. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas (I’m cheating with this one because I think it’ll be a classic even though it was only published this year.)
  18. Read a superhero comic with a female lead.
  19. Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey. American Street, Ibi Zoboi
  20. Read an LGBTQ+ romance novel.
  21. Read a book published by a micropress. Soft Spot: short stories, by Jagdev Singh Kaler
  22. Read a collection of stories by a woman. The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories, Connie Willis
  23. Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.
  24. Read a book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color. You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins

Has anyone else completed (or tried to complete) a book challenge this year? Or if you want to get started on a new one, try out our summertime reading challenges for kids and for adults and be in to win a prize!

Cover of American StreetCover of Ramona BlueCover of Leviathan WakesCover of Howl's Moving Castle

The Changeover: Girls with big hair, saving people

The film adaptation of The Changeover premiered in Christchurch a few weeks ago, and is now screening in cinemas across the country. If you haven’t yet encountered this melting pot of red-zone Christchurch, subtle romance and sinister magic, I highly recommend watching the movie and reading the novel it was loosely based on.

It’s a measure of how well-loved the book is within the libraries that there have been several reviews written by different staff members over the last few years.

Most recently bibliobishi wrote about the new edition that came out this year; Mo-Mo explored the transition from book to film; and I both raved about the book and wrote down what Elizabeth Knox, Karen Healey and Stuart McKenzie had to say about The Changeover at the 2014 WORD festival.

If you’ve already read and watched The Changeover, try our list of read-alikes for more spooky books about girls with big hair saving people.

 

Hamilton aims for the sky

Hamilton The Revolution coverThere’s a song by the comedy band Tripod with a line that goes: “I always get into stuff/ Just as it’s finishing being cool...”, and embarrassingly this often applies to me. A couple of years ago I listened to the first song of the (Alexander) Hamilton musical and thought it was good, but it didn’t blow me away. I figured I’d try it again another time.

A few weeks ago I put it on as something to listen to while cleaning the house, and this time I stuck with it; halfway through listening to “Satisfied” I was a firm fan. I kept cleaning just so that I could finish the musical (which never happens, believe me). The house was spotless by the time the last refrains of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” faded out, and I may have cried a few times while folding the washing. How did a story about another country’s history affect me (and millions of others) so deeply?

For a start it’s incredibly well written; it’s a musical but it’s sung-through, so you can hear the entire story by listening to the cast recording. While many of the songs are incredibly catchy the story is what compels you to continue listening to Alexander Hamilton as he drags himself up from nothing to something; he’s not always likeable, but you have to admire his incredible work ethic, and he was clearly charismatic to many.

Articulate, intelligent leaders are always interesting to read about, and he surrounded himself with articulate, intelligent men and women, including my favourite character — his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler — who sings my favourite song. Hamilton isn’t a musical that shies away from shades of grey, portraying both Hamilton and his frenemy Aaron Burr as complex rivals with a fundamental difference in character. Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to pack all this complexity into two and a bit hours by using rapid-fire delivery and lyrics that seem throw-away on the surface but unpack to give multiple meanings and allusions to hip hop masters, Shakespeare, and historical events.

Cover of Washington: A Life, Ron ChernowThere is a lot more I could say on the topic, from how I love that it’s bringing verse back to stage performance as a great tool for compelling exposition, how it’s performing America then by America now with a diverse and talented cast, how I’ve managed to have seven different songs stuck in my head at once — and yes, if you listened to this back in 2015, you already know all this stuff. But for anyone else who’s heard about it but hasn’t quite gotten around to it yet, or who loved the Kate Shepard musical (That Bloody Woman) last year, borrow the Hamilton cast recording today and give it a listen. If nothing else you’ll get a clean house out of it.

If you do already like Hamilton, I recommend Ron Chernow‘s biographies for some extra insights into Hamilton and Washington. I’ve also been reading the fantastically nerdy Hamilton The Revolution : Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, With A True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America and can thoroughly recommend it as it showcases the thought put into every single aspect of the show.

Recent Reads: Young Adult fiction

I’d be the first to admit I judge books by their covers all the time, but sometimes the blurb is so compelling I have to try the first chapter anyway. Such was the case with Noteworthy, a book with a deceptively bland cover much like the author’s previous book, Seven Ways We Lie. I mean, look at them! A+ for colour-matching but C- for covers that don’t match the content:

Cover of Noteworthy by Riley RedgateCover of Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate

Actually don’t look at them, just open them up and start reading instead, because listen to the description of Noteworthy:

After learning that her deep voice is keeping her from being cast in plays at her exclusive performing arts school, Jordan Sun, junior, auditions for an all-male octet hoping for a chance to perform internationally.

I didn’t realise I needed a book about a girl going undercover in an all-male a cappella group, but I definitely did. The blurb doesn’t mention it but she auditions and spends much of the book passing as a teenage boy and (against her first inclinations) becoming friends with the other members of the group. The author describes her book as “approx. 1/3 slapstick comedy, 1/3 hideous music puns, and 1/3 explorations of toxic masculinity and performative femininity,” which is fairly accurate, so if you’re a fan of puns and a cappella and figuring out who you are while pretending to be someone you aren’t, then give Noteworthy a try. If you want something a bit darker with a larger cast of characters, each based loosely on one of the seven sins, then try Seven Ways We Lie.

Cover of Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy

Ramona Blue is the most recent novel by Julie Murphy, whose book Dumplin’ I enjoyed last year. They have similar themes of teenage girls in small towns trying to be confident in who they are while suffering from crippling doubts, but where Dumplin’s self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean deals with this by entering the local beauty pageant, Ramona Blue is aggressively happy to stay living in a trailer with her dad and supporting her pregnant sister, definitely isn’t frustrated that she can’t go to college, definitely isn’t upset that her summer girlfriend has gone back home to her boyfriend.

In the middle of all this Ramona’s childhood friend Freddie moves back into town and they start swimming at the local pool, which Ramona turns out to be rather good at, and maybe also start having feelings for each other, but that can’t be right because Ramona has always known she was gay, hasn’t she? And she still likes girls, so what’s going on? Spoiler! it’s the elusive bisexual, now captured in fiction. I was worried when I realised the direction the book was going in but it was handled really well, and is only one strand of Ramona’s complex story.

Cover of Allegedly by Tiffany D. JacksonIf that’s still too light-hearted for you then maybe you’ll appreciate Tiffany D. Jackson’s grim debut, Allegedly.

Inspired by a similar case in Maine five years ago, Allegedly is told from the perspective of the now sixteen-year-old girl (Mary) convicted of manslaughter of a white infant when she was only nine. Her case is famous; books have been written, a film is in the works, and at the time of her trial the public were pushing for the death penalty. Eight years later she’s living in a group home while attempting to study for her SATs despite the interference of the women who run the home and the other girls living in it — while newly pregnant. The discovery that the authorities will take away her baby when he’s born prompts Mary to re-open her case, declaring she has been innocent all along. Was she? Or is she just doing whatever it takes to keep her unborn child?

Lost Austens; or, Beyond Pride and Prejudice

Cover of Lady Susan; The Watsons; SanditonNo, I’m not talking about Pride and Prejudice and Kittens. Jane Austen’s novels are justifiably well known, but her shorter works are equally amusing. If you’ve seen the film Love and Friendship then you may be aware that it’s based on a short epistolary novel entitled Lady Susan. I highly recommend seeking it out. It’s often bundled together with unfinished works The Watsons and Sanditon.

Some of my favourites, however, are the ridiculously silly short stories composed when she was a teenager. They run the gamut from murder:

I murdered my father at a very early period of my Life, I have since murdered my Mother, and I am now going to murder my Sister.

Suicide:

Cover of Love and Freindship and other storiesIt was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly, operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, & to that end threw herself into a deep stream which ran thro’ her Aunt’s pleasure Grounds in Portland Place. She floated to Crankhumdunberry where she was picked up & buried; the following epitaph, composed by Frederic, Elfrida & Rebecca, was placed on her tomb.

EPITAPH
Here lies our friend who having promis-ed
That unto two she would be marri-ed
Threw her sweet Body & her lovely face
Into the Stream that runs thro’ Portland Place.

Hooliganism:

Cover of The Beautifull CassandraThe beautifull Cassandra then proceeded to a Pastry-cooks where she devoured six ices, refused to pay for them, knocked down the Pastry Cook & walked away.

Gold diggers:

“Oh! when there is so much Love on one side there is no occasion for it on the other. However I do not much dislike him tho’ he is very plain to be sure.”

And, of, course, cannibalism:

She began to find herself rather hungry, & had reason to think, by their biting off two of her fingers, that her Children were much in the same situation.

I also highly recommend Austen’s History of England, by “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”. Really any Austen will do, just read the lot and tell me what you think.

Further reading

 

Review: When Dimple Met Rishi

I read this book at the perfect time: at the end of a particularly trying week, on the first day of a particularly nasty bug.

Reading something comforting in bed with a hot water bottle was the only activity I could bear, and luckily When Dimple Met Rishi delivered in spades. A lot of the books I usually read feature unexpected (or expected) character deaths, or stressful situations, or characters coping with losing a parent (this particular trope keeps popping up unexpectedly since losing a parent myself last year, and I’m not a fan! Publishers, take note). When Dimple Met Rishi is the antidote to all that — cute and sweet, but with enough depth to not be irritating. Perfect cosy winter reading.

Cover When Dimple met Rishi

Dimple Shah is almost running out the door in her eagerness to get away from her overbearing, traditional-minded mother (who wants her to find the Ideal Indian Husband) and to start studying to become a web developer. To her surprise, her parents agree to pay for the summer program for aspiring web programmers she’s been eyeing up for years.

Rishi Patel is a romantic who wants to find what his parents have achieved — a fairytale but practical marriage. When his parents tell him they’ve arranged for him to meet their friends’ daughter at Insomnia Con, he leaps at the opportunity — maybe a bit too hard, because Dimple is anything but thrilled to meet him. In fact, she didn’t even know he existed.

There are quite a few tropes playing out here, but I like them all so they get a pass. Dimple and Rishi are both engaging characters who make some stupid mistakes, and best of all they realise they do actually like each other quite quickly rather than the author coming up with flimsy misunderstandings in order to string the suspense along. Instead the conflict is through them figuring themselves out, what they want to do with their lives and careers, balancing cultural tradition/family with an American upbringing, and deciding whether being in a relationship is compatible with university study. Some of which I’m still figuring out myself, so maybe I need to a summer conference. The romance is pretty cute, and Dimple is usually quite good at pointing out when Rishi is being too smug.

I would have liked a bit more development of Dimple’s room-mate, Celia, as she is poorly served by both some of her friends and by the narrative. And some more detail on the app-building and the program would have been interesting to me. But given that it’s a book entitled When Dimple Met Rishi, I can’t complain too much if it’s all about them.

If you’re a fan of funny contemporary teen romance with geekery and Bollywood dancing, then get thee to a library and pick this one up. If you’ve already read it, have a look at:

Review copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

When Dimple Met Rishi
by Sandhya Menon
Published by Hachette New Zealand
ISBN: 9781473667402

Cover to The Geek's Guide to UnrequitedCover of To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeCover of Looking for AlibrandiCover of Fangirl

Harry Potter: a personal history

Cover of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneWhen I was 7, a substitute teacher read the class the first two chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I thought it was a bit rubbish and told my mother so when I got home. “I think I’ve heard about it on the radio,” she said. “It’s meant to be quite good.” Oh. I gave it another try, this time borrowing it from the library. I read it so compulsively that I finished it on a family visit to a friend’s for dinner, surfacing at the end to ask if there was a sequel. I was hooked.

That was in 1997. Over the next few years the world caught up in the same kind of madness, and I slowly caught up to Harry in age. By the time Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the seventh and final volume) was published I was a teenager on a gap year — I still have a photo of myself in a bookshop in France on the day it was released. Like a lot of people, Harry Potter was my first experience of fandom, sharing my fiction affliction with millions of others around the world. There are a thousand stories like mine.

My relationship with the books is a lot more complicated now than it was in the beginning, but they shaped so much of my growing up that I still love them anyway. From making Harry Potter paper dolls with my best friend to writing a fan letter to J. K. Rowling (and getting a reply!), buying my first merch (Hedwig sweatshirt) in Germany in 1998, getting spoiled for who died in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix because for once I didn’t read fast enough, dressing up for a launch event at the local bookshop in 2005…

Somehow, as of today, it has been 20 years since Harry Potter was first published. Time for a re-read and a chocolate frog, I think.

Stella Duffy at the WORD Christchurch Autumn Season

Stella Duffy: writer, playwright, actor, improviser, founder and co-director of Fun Palaces, and general multi-tasker extraordinaire. How, asks interviewer Liz Grant, does she have the energy?

I like working, and I know I’m really lucky to be able to do it — my parents both left school at 14, had very hard working lives, the only time off my dad had was when he was shot down in World War II and became a POW — so when artists talk about how it’s such hard work, and they have to suffer, it makes me want to punch them. What’s hard work is raising seven children like my mother, or being a brilliant man with no opportunities like my dad. I work really hard at my job, but it’s not hard work. I know I’m fortunate to be able to do it.

Liz Grant and Stella Duffy. WORD Christchurch Autumn Season. The Piano. Monday 15 May 2017. Flickr 2017-05-15-IMG_0166

Family

Duffy’s family history is fascinating — like all families it is complex and messy. While researching she discovered a great-grandmother who had given birth in Holloway prison. The reason for her spell inside? Manslaughter; “I didn’t realise the baby was so ill,” she said in court, “and neither did my (12-year old) daughter.” She worked from 9pm-6am every night (“charring” is the occupation given, scare quotes intentional), providing for her children so that she could be home to get them ready for school, only to lose a child and be imprisoned while pregnant with the next. It’s a far cry from Downton Abbey, that’s for sure, and can be seen in the hard working lives of the families in Duffy’s London Lies Beneath.

“There’s no place like home”

Probably the most interesting for me was the talk of home/not home, how once you move away from the place you grew up you effectively lose it — always missing home, but when you visit it has changed without you. This really resonated as someone who grew up in a small town but now lives in a city, with family across New Zealand as well as far away in Europe, who has lived overseas and now feels the tug of home/not-home wherever I am.

Christchurch in particular has that double-layered effect, walking down streets that have changed beyond measure in only a few years. In cities such as London and Rome the juxtaposition of past and present is even more noticeable, everything built on and around and between the layers of its own history. Duffy loves being swallowed up by such a vast, full and vibrant city, being “a small fish in a very big pond”, keeping the taniwha in the Thames fed with Kiwi accents and secrets:

Cover of London Lies BeneathYou know what they say about the taniwha, don’t you, girl?

She shook her head.

He smiled as he said, It’s homesick, of course, but the Thames is too busy and it can’t get by the ships for fear of being seen and lauded and brought ashore for our pleasure again. It doesn’t like to be looked at, not directly. And it’s bigger, much bigger now, grown full on the secrets we tell to the water. That taniwha lives off our whispers, eating up the fears and tears we tell over the side of a bridge. It’s grown fat on what we hide from in the dark, beneath the bedclothes. There’s no getting away from it either, it will follow you along the Effra or the Neckinger as easy as it rides the tide from Tilbury to Teddington.

— London Lies Beneath, Stella Duffy

Ngaio Marsh

When I first read about Money in the Morgue I was under the impression that Duffy was simply finishing an already mostly-completed manuscript, but no: Dame Ngaio Marsh only left three sketchy chapters with some rough notes and no ideas of whodunnit, where it was done or how. Helpful!

Duffy talked a little about how to recreate the tone of Marsh’s writing without the less desirable -isms that permeate 30s era novels (how to make it seem as if it were written in that time but not of that time, if you see what I mean). The answer? Steal a few of Marsh’s writing tics. “Alleyn rubbed his nose.” “His ascetic monk’s face.” “His long, elegant fingers.” Perhaps we’ll see some of New Zealand’s “primordial landscape”, too. All jokes aside, Duffy is careful to avoid any sense of pastiche or mockery in her writing, being an avid admirer of Marsh’s work.

I look forward to reading Money in the Morgue when it’s published in May 2018, and in the meantime reading Duffy’s recent thriller, The Hidden Room. If you’re interested in learning more about the historical setting of London Lies Beneath, Duffy recommends Round About a Pound a Week, written in 1913 by the trade unionist, Fabian and feminist Maud Pember Reeves. If you’re new to Ngaio Marsh’s writing then she recommends starting with Died in the Wool, a country house mystery set on a high country sheep station in New Zealand.

Cover of The Hidden RoomCover of Round About a Pound a WeekCover of Died in the Wool