Sunday, 30 May 2010

She Sells Seashells On The Seashore...

REVIEW: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper (1 April 2010)
ISBN-10: 0007178387
ISBN-13: 978-0007178384
Copy: Bought in local bookshop

On the back of the book:
On a windswept English beach in the early 19th century, two women make discoveries that change the world. And in doing so find friendship, pride – and trouble.

From the moment she’s struck by lightning as a baby, it is clear Mary Anning is different. Her discovery of strange fossilized creatures in the cliffs of Lyme Regis sets the world alight. But Mary must face powerful prejudice from a male scientific establishment, not to mention vicious gossip and the heartbreak of forbidden love. The – in prickly, clever Elizabeth Philpot, a fossil-obsessed middle-class spinster – she finds a champion, and a rival. Despite their differences in class and age, Mary and Elizabeth’s loyalty and passion for the truth must win out…

Remarkable Creatures is a fictionalised account of the life of Mary Anning (1799 – 1847), a woman from Lyme Regis whose fossil hunting skills produced specimens that would revolutionise the world of science and question the religious view of creation itself. Now a highly respected figure in Palaeontology, she never received the full recognition she deserved for her discoveries in her lifetime. The Natural History Museum in London displays many of the fossils she uncovered in the cliffs around Lyme Regis, now correctly attributed to her.

The development of Geology as a science is an integral part of the story in Remarkable Creatures. Many distinguished scholars owe a considerable debt to Mary Anning as she provided such luminaries as Henry De La Beche, Louis Agassiz, William Buckland and William Conybeare with the fossils on which they built their scientific reputations.
(C) Natural History Museum

The story focuses on the friendship between Mary and Elizabeth Philpot (1780 – 1857), how they met when Mary was still a child and how their shared love of fossils created a strong bond between the pair. Mary is the girl in the tongue-twister nursery rhyme “She sells seashells…”. Elizabeth Philpot was something of a mentor to Mary, encouraging her to read about geology and to follow a scientific method in recording and documenting her finds. A strong theme throughout the book is how, because of their gender, their lives were severely restricted by the social mores of their era.

The narration of events switches between Mary and Elizabeth, told in the first person. For me, this worked well as we get to see both sides of the friendship and gain insight into each woman’s life. Despite the difference in age and class, they eventually found a balance with each other. Elizabeth, a middle-class, middle-aged spinster, sent away to live with her 2 unmarried sisters by her married brother, is the dominant voice and it is through her we see the constraints placed on women, especially unmarried ones, in this period of history.

“Mary Anning and I are hunting fossils on the beach, she her creatures, I my fish. Our eyes are fastened to the sand and rocks as we make our way along the shore at different paces, first one in front, then the other. Mary stops to split open a nodule and find what may be lodged within. I dig through clay, searching for something new and miraculous. We say very little, for we do not need to. We are silent together, each in her own world, knowing the other is just at her back.”

While I thoroughly enjoyed reading Remarkable Creatures, I was irritated by the romance between Mary and Colonel Birch. It seemed contrived to me, and not necessarily in keeping with the rest of the book. That aside, the detail of everyday life in early 19th century England showed Tracy Chevalier’s commitment to research and it made the personalities shine through. Mary and Elizabeth are strong, likeable characters who make the most of the world in which they find themselves. Despite differing levels of education, Mary being mainly self-taught, the women have keen intellects and questioning minds that try to make sense of Mary’s finds in the context of their religious teachings and the nature of God. This was a period where the Biblical Creation myth was largely unquestioned until the discoveries by Mary Anning and others. I enjoyed this side of the book knowing that ideas that were discussed contributed to Charles Darwin’s thinking on evolution.

Sunday, 16 May 2010


I first read about the book habits meme on Amanda’s blog at Floor to Ceiling Books where she states
I have seen this on Genre Reader and the original post is hosted on The World in the Satin Bag.
Having read (and enjoyed) Amanda’s answers I decided to do this myself, so here goes…

Do you snack while you read? If so, favourite reading snack:
Yes, I snack while reading. Often it is chocolate or sweets, but nuts (raw, honey-roasted, salted, whatever), crisps, rice cakes, or biscuits can also help the reading process. A sign of a really engrossing book is that the snacks do not get eaten!

What is your favourite drink while reading?
Generally it is water, I drink a lot of water! Sometimes I’ll make a cup of herbal tea or mug of hot chocolate, but water is the default.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
I rarely write notes in a fiction book but I have come to rely on post-its when reading a book for review. I use little coloured index tabs to flag interesting quotes etc.
Text books, however, are often heavily marked with highlighter pen, a habit picked up many years ago when at college. Now the only text books I read are on computing (Java anyone?) and these tend to be a riot of fluorescent ink.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book flat open?
I generally use bookmarks, mostly those free advertising ones available at the cash desk in bookshops. If I haven’t got one to hand, I’ll use postcards, train tickets, receipts or anything I find in the black hole that is my handbag! My last resort is to dog-ear the corner, though I will use the cover flap of a hardback to keep my place. The only time I lay a book flat open is when I’m reading in bed… I often wake up in the morning to find the light still on and my book lying face down beside me.

Fiction, nonfiction, or both?
Predominantly fiction. But I read popular science, environment/green politics, history, rock biographies, new age/spirituality/Buddhism too. I’m eclectic! I’d say 5 fiction books to 1 non-fiction.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?
I try to stop at the end of a chapter or section, but this doesn’t always work out. I can pick up from where I left off though, even in the middle of a paragraph.

Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?
No, never. I will abandon a book if I don’t like it though. I have no qualms about NOT finishing a book… life is too short to waste time reading something you dislike!

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
It is rare that I find an unfamiliar word, and I can generally work out the meaning from the context. It is only with recent technological advances i.e. my iPhone that I have the ability to look up a word when reading on the move, so it’s something I learned to deal with years ago!

What are you currently reading?
  • Angelology by Danielle Trussoni
  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (book club)
  • The Mammoth Book of SF Alternate Histories ed. Ian Watson and Ian Whates
  • Dante’s Journey by J.C.Marino
What is the last book you bought?
All in one order from Amazon:
  • The Photographer’s Eye by Michael Freeman
  • The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
  • Apartment 16 by Adam Neville
  • The Marks of Cain by Tom Knox
  • Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier
  • The Magician’s Apprentice by Trudi Canavan
Are you the type of person that reads one book at a time, or can you read more than one?
I read more than one at a time. There’s one in my handbag for train/tube trips or when an opportunity presents itself. Another is for bedtime reading and then I’ll allocate time for specific books, usually those I am going to review.

Do you have a favourite time/place to read?
Anytime, any place, anywhere! If I have a spare few minutes, I’ll fill that time by reading. But reading in bed is my favourite.

Do you prefer series books or stand alones?
Both! But I can get impatient for the next in a series to be published.

Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
Yes, there are several. Stephen Baxter, Jacqueline Carey, Mark Charan Newton, Jaine Fenn to name a few.

How do you organize your books?(by genre, title, author’s last name, etc.)
By size, then author’s name and publication date. I have different genres in separate locations…