Reading Mostly Women – November 2018

I’m spending 2018 reading mostly women. Only mostly, because I don’t want to be too restrictive about these things. If I read a book by someone who is not a woman I won’t have “failed”. I’m also trying to read books that are recommended to me, books by people I follow on Twitter, that kind of thing.

October’s post 

In November I read:

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – This was recommended to me because of how much I liked Small Angry Planet. This is a bigger story, whereas Small Angry Planet can best be described as “cosy”, but has a similar feel to it, spending a lot of time thinking about cultures and pronouns and interpersonal relationships and what it is to be a person. I loved it and went straight on to read the two sequels.

Survival Rout by Ana Mardoll – Three college students are kidnapped by fairies, have their memories wiped, and find themselves in a world where the boys must fight gladiator-style and the girls are the “prizes”. With more-than-usual gender diversity, as we’d expect from Ana. An adventure story with deep care and friendship. (see June’s post for Ana’s fairytale retellings

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson – This was mentioned on What Page Pod and then selected by a book club that meets in a local community pub, so of course I had to read it. It’s interesting and weird and sometimes uncomfortable and we disagreed about whether anything was actually magic (I say not) and how important the cat was (it doesn’t behave in entirely catlike ways).

How To Be Champion by Sarah Millican –  Sarah has some wise things to say about ironing (just let your fat and body heat smooth things out), 24 hour Asdas (you might accidentally buy a dress when you pop in for milk), and being excited that women are now allowed a go at being Doctor Who. I also heard some of it in her voice, which was fun.

A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab – A story of multiple Londons (one run by George III) and magic that lets a few people travel between them. Our main character is Kell, one of the few who can travel, but the show is stolen by a girl thief who dresses as a masked highwayman and dreams of her own boat.


Art Pass – Brunel Museum

Second outing for the Art Pass and another museum rather than gallery.

The Brunel museum is in Rotherhithe, which is most usefully described as “On the Overground, near Canada Water”. As with the Dickens Museum, the location is relevant to the topic, as it’s here that a young Isambard Kingdom Brunel worked with his dad on the Thames Tunnel.

The first thing you do on entering the museum is watch a longish (20 mins +) video, made on what would have been Brunel’s 200th birthday, with many lovingly-shot scenes of bridges. I liked it but thought that if they’d lingered on the bridges a little less it could have been 2/3 the length and still had the same level of information.

The tunnel was by all accounts a bit of a disaster – repeatedly flooding and unable to make money (a penny a go for pedestrians just didn’t cut it, and they didn’t get around to opening it to carts), so was sold off to a railway company. These days the Overground trains that I mentioned above run through it. Yes, it’s under the ground and under the river – a couple of stops north at Whitechapel the Underground is actually higher than the Overground.

There was a brief period when the tunnel was very fashionable, with souvenirs made for tourists who came to visit. Some of these are displayed in the museum above.

Above what? Oh, did I not mention that you get to go down into the shaft? This is what elevates the museum from “a collection of bit of paper, and a video” to something a bit special. That diagonal mark along the wall is where the stairs were. Two sets of stairs in a helix – one for pedestrians going up and one for those going down. You can really hear the trains rumble when you’re down here.

If you’re lucky you’ll also get a talk from a very enthusiastic and knowledgeable museum keeper, who wants you to know that the Great Western Railway is absolutely the best because Brunel took a train from London to Liverpool and insisted “when I build my railway, you’ll be able to drink a cup of coffee at 50 miles an hour”.

This space can be rented out for events, and also hosts poetry nights, but remember to bring a coat as it’s pretty chilly down there.

Art Pass – Charles Dickens Museum

The first of my Art Pass Free London Venues that I visited after declaring my intentions was the Charles Dickens museum, which is near Holborn.

This is a house that he lived in when he was young and newly- (and by all accounts happily-) married. I’ve mainly seen pictures of Dickens as an older man so it was interesting to see him and his wife as they were at the time.

The house has a smallish footprint but a lot of floors – the servants must have been up and down the stairs a lot. One of my favourite rooms was the kitchen, because I see food as an important way of understanding how people in the past lived (which is why I love shows like Back In Time For Dinner, or Supersizers – and did you know that you can watch The 1900 House on All4?)

Dickens’s wife Catherine was apparently a published author herself, of a book called “What Shall We Have For Dinner?” – which she recognised as a rather tiresome question when dinner must be ordered day after day after day (I believe that Katy Carr found it similarly tiresome). Suggestions from the additional materials in the audioguide (which I highly recommend – only an extra £3) include:

For two or more persons:

Mutton broth, roast fowl, boiled bacon, minced mutton,French beans, potatoes, cold ground rice pudding, toasted cheese, water cresses

Another interesting piece on the audioguide was Dickens’s words about Mary Hogarth, who died suddenly in this house. If I heard someone speak that way about their teenage sister-in-law I’d think something was a bit off, but in this case I’ll put it down to his being a rather dramatic person who feels things very deeply, a la  Marianne Dashwood. Perhaps it is necessary that he is so very emotional, so he can similarly elicit emotions in his readers. I still think it’s a little much that he spoke of her company as “the chief solace of his labours” and wore her ring for the rest of his life.


This picture shows the more familiar face of the man we know. Apparently it is unfinished, but I like the idea of some of his creations being clearly made in colour and others awaiting being written.

One last thing – the museum keeps a few rooms in the next-door house for the shop/entrance and for a temporary exhibition. This is what I saw.

Is there a cafe? Yes, but I didn’t go to it. It has an indoor space and an outdoor space, and looked like it would be more appealing in the summer.

Art Pass Free London Venues

A new challenge, and one that requires actually leaving the house! I bought myself a (discounted of course) National Art Pass, which gives free entry to lots of not-usually-free museums and galleries, and discounts on lots of exhibitions.

I had a three-month trial pass for £10 this summer, during which I managed to visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery (as featured in one of the books I read in October), the Frida Kahlo exhibition at the V&A (I now really want to visit her house in Mexico), and the Picasso exhibition at the Tate Modern.

London of course has many free museums, but this will encourage me to explore a bit more and check out non-obvious galleries. And really what Londonder actually goes to the museums? I definitely need a nudge!

So here is my challenge – I’m going to try to visit all of the locations listed as “free” and “in London” on the Art Pass website. I am not sure how relaxed their definition of “London” is, but let’s hope they’re all accessible via Oyster card.

PS – It is called a “National” Art Pass, and I know I’m at risk of being accused of being London-centric, but that’s where I live. If I visit anywhere else I will of course check out the possibilities.

Reading Mostly Women – October 2018

I’m spending 2018 reading mostly women. Only mostly, because I don’t want to be too restrictive about these things. If I read a book by someone who is not a woman I won’t have “failed”. I’m also trying to read books that are recommended to me, books by people I follow on Twitter, that kind of thing.

September’s post

In October I read:

A History Of Glitter And Blood by Hannah Moskowitz – A story about fairies and goblins and other creatures, set not in our world or a psuudo-medieval worldbut a different world entirely. I enjoyed the structure of the book, partly “as it happens” and partly looking back just a little way to a war. The heroine shuts down a potential lover quite sensibly with “I am in love with one fucking thing, and that thing is not being at war”, which reminded me of one of my favourite parts of the Hunger Games, where Katniss avoids the issue of the love triangle by saying (something like) “All I can think about since all this started is how scared I am”.

The Rise and Fall of Becky Sharp by Sarra Manning – A Vanity Fair rewrite, usefully published around the time of the ITV adaptation, with the protagonist’s first thrust into the spotlight coming courtesy of Big Brother. It is very much set exactly in the 2010s and I love it for that. Becky intends to gorge on fame “as if she was standing in Nando’s with a tapeworm and a black card”.

Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik – A romcom about Muslim dating in 21st century Britain – as recommended by the School For Dumb Women podcast – lots of fun and I felt like I learned a couple of things about the significance of beard lengths. The family are well-drawn and funny too.

The Girl In The Gallery by Alice Castle – This is book #2 in the London Mysteries series, and features a gallery that I HAVE BEEN TO. I even remember the picture brought up in the prologue. Just waiting for Peckham to have a better featuring role in these Dulwich-based stories. A Poisoning in Peckham perhaps? I later read #3 and #4, which were STILL not in Peckham. I think I used the word “cosy murder mystery” in the past – knowledge of local gossip about pets or babysitters is key to solving murders.

Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling by Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen – Yes I know it’s weird to have a novel written by two people, so weird that they were on both The School For Dumb Women and What Page Are You On talking about it. And I couldn’t possibly say no to a book recommended by both of those podcasts. My favourite quote was “one of those women who’s so effortlessly glam that you assume she’s a thundering bitch” and my favourite moment was Aisling’s sightseeing anorak and boots being approved of by a snooty Berlin nightclub bouncer as “Normcore”.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung – Nonfiction this time, about experiences of cross-racial adoption in the US and meeting her family (in particular her sister). I read this all in one go on a long bus journey and enjoyed the reflection on families and what they mean and how you think about them even though my family is completely different. I wish I’d read this before I read Little Fires Everywhere, I’d have been able to think about some of its themes more meaningfully.

What We Pretend We Can’t See – A Harry Potter fanfic in which Harry is 28, the war is over, and he’s been suffering from PTSD (he’s no longer with Ginny, and she’s better off without him really). Oh, and Malfoy has set up a museum to give muggleborn wizard kids a gentler introduction to the wizarding world. There are a good few digs at Dumbledore being a bit of a shite mentor, and a couple at JK for telling us all that he was gay years later without putting it in the books.

The Royal Runaway by Lindsay Emory – A Princess Diaries type thing, but the fictional nation is in the Low Countries this time rather than the Alps (nearly all of the Christmassy ones are in the Alps as well – maybe because it’s easy to hide small countries there?). “Big Gran” is the Queen and even though she’s definitely not Julie Andrews I of course saw her as Julie Andrews. Revisiting to get the link and it says it’s been optioned for film and I would love for Julie Andrews to just be ALL THE QUEENS.

Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew – A fairytale with an Eastern slant, and an interesting approach to gender. I appreciated that this challenged the assumptions that I didn’t even know I was making about how fairytales “work” – the worldbuilding felt more like scifi than fantasy to me – that might sound like a weird thing to say but it shows how “different” things were and how much we expect them to be “the same”.

That was a lot – I was on holiday for two weeks, which involved three flights and a lot of bus journeys!


Reading Mostly Women – September 2018

I’m spending 2018 reading mostly women. Only mostly, because I don’t want to be too restrictive about these things. If I read a book by someone who is not a woman I won’t have “failed”. I’m also trying to read books that are recommended to me, books by people I follow on Twitter, that kind of thing.

August’s post

In September I read:

(part of) Fire Watch by Connie Willis – The characters in Blackout mention the events of the titular short story so I thought I’d check it out. Seems like a good thing they didn’t manage to bump into this dude because he was time travelling with NO CLUE what he should be doing. Really I am disappointed in Mr Dunworthy’s lack of preparation.

The Cows by Dawn O’Porter – I like that the author added the O to her name to (slightly) merge her name with her husband’s. I like less that he didn’t change his name at all, but as someone on Late Night Woman’s Hour mentioned, he does have his Equity card. There are some great lines in this that really resonated. And some wild behaviour that made me think “WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?”.

The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton – I found this via The Pool, who invited their readers to try out a new book club type app. I can’t say that the app fit in that well with my life – three days out of eleven I reached the end of the book segment when I wanted to read some more, and I mostly read on my commute so I didn’t get to join in on much of the interactivity. I did get to go to a fancy launch party though, and I’m very pleased that I got to experience it. The story is a time-split story about an old house, with pre-Raphaelite artists and a modern-day archivist. I wished for more on the current-day protagonist’s life (especially after The Cows, which is great on relationships), but enjoyed it overall.

Ma’am Darling by Craig Brown – Stretching the “mostly” to include a biography (sort of) of a woman. I picked this up because I wanted something with small snippets where I wouldn’t be tempted to keep reading when I had to get back to the book above. Some of these were interesting but I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is not as keen on slice-of-life history as I am. (and there wasn’t enough of that amongst the name dropping)

A Crimson Warning by Tasha Alexander – The Amazon page says that this is Lady Emily’s sixth book. I picked it up in a charity shop so knew none of this, I mainly liked the cover. It’s 1893, as someone helpfully writes in their diary, rather earlier than I am used to seeing in cosy murder mysteries. Lady Emily is rather sickeningly in love with her husband, I expect they got together during the investigation of another mystery, during which he came to appreciate her skills of deduction and the ease with which a woman can entice secrets that a man could not.

Baby names 2017 and gender-neutral names

The baby names list is one of my favourite datasets. Everyone has a name, so everyone can find something interesting in a list of names. Is your name at the top? Great, you’re popular. Is your name not even on the list? Wow, you’re unique. Or unique-ish, anyway, as names that were given to only 1 or 2 babies are excluded from the list for privacy reasons.

My particular areas of interest are, of course, my name, and also gender-neutral names*.

My name is Charlie, as you can see, but I’d show up in these stats as a Charlotte. Charlotte was not in the top 100 for most of the last century, shows up in the mid 70s, peaking at the millennium, and showing a downward trend until the birth of a certain royal Charlotte in the mid-2010s**.

Charlie as a girls’ name made a brief showing in the late 90s/early 00s, and Lottie (another common shortening of Charlotte) from 2014 – a year before the aforementioned Princess was born. Alternative spellings Charley and Lotty have never been in the top 100.

(note I’m fairly certain we only have data every ten years up until a certain point – I don’t think Charlotte jumped into the top 100 in 1974, 1984, 1994 only to disappear completely in between)
chart of charlotte charlie lottie popularity

When meeting or speaking to people for the first time after previously communicating only by email, I’ve more than once had people exclaim “I thought you were Charlie short for Charles!”, and the stats support that this is not an unreasonable assumption to make. Charles has been in the top 100 boys’ names for the whole of the period we have data for. It shows the same millennium-peak as Charlotte, but when it starts to decline form its peak the name Charlie (as a full name) takes over.

There are now more boys being called Charlie as their whole name than there are boys being called Charles, and Charlie has been in the top 10 for the last decade.

Gender-neutral names are often, in my experience, shortenings of longer names. I am Charlie, my brother is Sam, I have friends called Jess and Alex. When my parents told people “this is Charlie and Sam” and gestured towards a girl child and a boy child, there was no real reason why they’d be able to guess which was which***.

I would have expected there to be not much to see in the baby name stats on gender-neutral names – after all, I’m in there as Charlotte and my brother (if there were stats for his year) would be Samuel. But there seems to be much more now a trend to name children names that previously would only have been a nickname or shortening. One of my friends named her child Teddy and she’s not even embarrassed about it.

So what names can we see if we combine both sets of stats? A quick glance shows us that:

  • More boys were born than girls: 348k vs 331k
  • The top 10 boys’ names accounted for 13% of the total, whereas the top 10 girls’ names made up only 10% of the total for girls (or put another way: 1 in 7 boys has a top-10 name, but only 1 in 10 girls does)
  • There were 1,751 uncommon girls’ names (names given to only 3 baby girls, the minimum required to be included in the stats) but only 1,353 uncommon boys’ names
  • 10% of girls had a name that was given to only one or two girls, compared to 7% of boys – these names are not included in the stats

All that can be summed up as “girls are more likely to be given unusual names than boys”.

When we combine the lists and take the overall top 10, we can truthfully repeat the headline that the “top two names are Oliver and Olivia” (this is not necessarily the case – in 2016 the top two names were Oliver and Harry, with Olivia in fourth place, after George). The top 10 is made up of two girls’ names, six boys’ names, and two names that the data say can be used for boys or girls. Charlie is there of course, but so is Noah. That’s not one I would have expected, and there are 700x as many boy Noahs as girl Noahs, so we may still be safe in thinking of Noah as a (mainly) “boys’ name”.

Are there names that are more equal? The most popular name with exactly equal numbers of boys and girls is Avery, with 65 of each. Lamar and Darby both have 11 girls and 11 boys. The most evenly-split name given to over a thousand babies is Frankie, which is 2.6 times more popular for boys than girls. There’s no comparable girl-skewed quite-popular quite-evenly-split name: Harper comes closest, with over a thousand babies, but only 1 in 32 of them is a boy.

If we think of names as approaching neutrality from one side or the other, is it more acceptable to give a girl a “boys’ name”, and so is it more usual to have a large minority of girls with traditionally-male names? Only very brave parents will give their boys traditionally-female names.That’s my guess, but that’s definitely me applying my existing thoughts to the data. The data tells us what people are calling their babies, but not why.


*I’m going to talk about “boys’ names” and “girls’ names” all the way through here because that’s what they are called by the ONS, but we know that you CAN of course give any name to any baby

**What are we calling this decade by the way? I think the previous one is the “Noughties”, but what are we in right now?

***Other than that you always say the name of the older child first, right?