Chatting about weasels, insults and writing on Bookmark

On 11 February I was thrilled to be included in an edition of Leigh Chamber‘s Bookmark on Cambridge 105, alongside the author Tom Connolly.

You can listen here as we discuss research, inspiration and writing non-fiction.

Bodleianalia at Oxford Literary Festival

I am very excited to announce that I will be appearing at Oxford Literary Festival onBod_jacket Monday 27 March, 2017 at 4pm in the Weston Library to talk about my book Bodleianalia: Curious Facts About Britain’s Oldest University Library.

I will be sharing a behind-the-scenes look at the Bodleian Library, sharing fascinating facts, the quirks of fate and the eccentric characters who have helped make the Bodleian the world-renowned library it is today.

Please join me for what I hope will be a wonderful celebration of the history of Oxford’s famous library. You can book your tickets here.

Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: One of QI’s ‘Most Interesting’ books of 2016

It is with great excitement that I have discovered Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins has been included as one of QI’s 10 Most Interesting Books of 2016!


QI (Quite Interesting Ltd) is delighted to announce the first annual Quite Interesting Book of The Year award. qi-badge

This is a list of ten books, selected from the many hundreds read over the course of 2016 by the staff researchers at QI (in Stephen Fry’s affectionate coinage ‘The QI Elves’), which have particularly astonished and delighted them.

A place on the list entitles the publisher of the book to put one of these on the jacket of the winners:

A Quite Interesting Book of the Year 2016

Just as an Academy Award is colloquially known as an Oscar, this magnificent golden sticker also has a name – a Sorrento – after the neologism for ‘the thing that goes round and round as a YouTube video loads’.

The list of ten Quite Interesting Books of the Year will be announced in the first week of each December in good time for Christmas shopping.

Here is the 2016 list:

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Sam Arbesman (Current, hardback)

 Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic by Claire Cock-Starkey (British Library publications)

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing (Borough Press)

 A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45, by Astrid Lindgren Translated by Sarah Death (Pushkin Press)

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body by Sara Pascoe (Faber)

 The Naming of the Shrew:  A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright (Bloomsbury)

 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fleet publishing)

 The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the

Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf (John Murray)

 I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (Bodley Head)

1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted  by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin and Anne Miller (Faber)

There is more information about each winning title on the list below, in the form of a mini-review written by one of the QI Elves.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the Elves have rather immodestly included one of their own books at number 10 on the list.

This is because the interesting nuggets of information in 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted have been painstakingly mined from the contents of dozens and dozens of books, including (of course) the other nine on the list. So, if it’s not quite interesting, something has gone seriously awry…

Sandi Toksvig writes: ‘The QI Nisse (Danish for Elves) as I call them, constantly have their noses in books as they ferret out facts for QI. Now I know their favourite reads, all my Christmas shopping just got a whole lot easier.

John Lloyd writes: ‘Over the last 14 years, I’ve found the QI Elves’ taste in books to be extremely reliable. Or else.’

Anne Miller, QI Elf, writes: ‘At QI we read everything from cereal packets to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. These are our favourites and the ones we would hope to have if stranded on a desert island.’

Those titles in full:

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Sam Arbesman

Sam Arbesman is a brilliant ex-Harvard mathematician and complexity scientist. His last book, The Half-Life of Facts, is about how almost everything we think we know eventually goes out of date and becomes wrong. We liked it so much it was featured both on QI and in our last-book-but-one 1,411 QI Facts To Knock You Sideways. The theme of Overcomplicated is that modern technology is so complex no one really understands it, so that everything from phones, aircraft and cars to hospitals and financial systems behave in unexpected ways and seem to have a mind of their own. Fascinating, alarming, insightful, full of examples and funny.

 Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic by Claire Cock-Starkey

This book reveals nature through the eyes of those who first encountered it, gathering first impressions of exotic plants and creatures from across the globe. As well as being packed with gems – like the fact that in 17th-century India, mangoes were shaken up inside their skins and drunk as smoothies; or that pelicans’ throats were once used as tobacco pouches – it’s an exciting, firsthand insight into the mindsets, language and beliefs of our ancestors.

The Last of Us by Rob Ewing

Ewing’s debut novel is set on a Scottish island where five children are the only survivors of a virus that has wiped out everyone else. Narrated by eight-year-old Rona, the children organise themselves into a new life. They go ‘new shopping’ by raiding the houses of the deceased, visit the ruined school to practice writing and try to take care of each other. Written by a Scottish GP, who spent time living and working on the Barra in the Outer Hebrides, this book is chilling, compelling and impossible to put down.

 A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45 by Astrid Lindgren.

Translated by Sarah Death

Astrid Lindgren kept a painstaking diary during the Second World War which has only recently been translated into English. She had a job working at the Postal Control Division that involved steaming opening letters to check their contents. She also scoured newspapers for updates on the war, which she recorded carefully in her diary along with dispatches from her life in neutral Sweden. Stories about 12,000 Russians perishing in Finland sit next to her deciding to buy shoes for the family before the prices go up or taking everyone to Skansen, an open air museum on Christmas day. An early entry sums up the feelings of deep confusion: ‘Anne-Marie came round this evening and we have never had a more dismal “meeting”. We tried to talk about things other than the war but it was impossible. In the end we had a brandy to cheer ourselves up, but it didn’t help.’

Animal: The Autobiography of A Female Body by Sara Pascoe

Sara Pascoe’s debut blends her trademark wit and humour with autobiography and evolutionary history as she examines our collective pasts for clues as to how and why certain behaviours and norms have developed. From ancient diets: ‘The skinny women of pre-history perished. We can cry for them later’, to body confidence, and from consent to childbirth, Animal is packed with jokes, smart observations and comes with an extensive further reading list. A brilliant read which is as funny as it is remarkable.

 The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The scarcely believable cruelties of the slave trade have been visited before in fiction, but never with such harrowing precision. The story of two slaves, Cora and Caesar, escaping from a Georgia plantation using an underground railroad, pursued by Ridgeway, a slave-catcher of Terminator-like relentlessness, explodes off the page, swiftly asserting itself as one of the great mythic journeys in modern literature. In his sixth novel, Colson Whitehead has produced a classic: lyrical, deeply shocking yet somehow full of hope.

The Naming of the Shrew:  A Curious History of Latin Names by John Wright

This is the book that the QI Elves were fighting over during research for Series N. It’s absolutely crammed full of brilliant facts including that most ‘Latin names’ aren’t Latin. It’s full of naming mishaps – the Hydrangea serratifolia has smooth leaves but its name means ‘with serrated leaves’ because the sample examined had been nibbled. There’s also the unfortunate case of William Hemsley who wanted to name a bramble species to honour the Cockburn family and christened it Rubus cockburnianus.

 The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf

As well as being one of the most vital figures in the history of botany and zoology, Humboldt was an intrepid adventurer and a fascinating character. Darwin volunteered for the Beagle voyage because he was inspired by Humboldt, and once wrote of him, ‘He, like another sun, illumines everything I behold.’ Wulf captures all of this in her biography, which is littered with Humboldt’s own brilliant writing and observations, and leaves you wondering why he doesn’t occupy a permanent spot on every school curriculum.

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong

Science journalist Ed Yong’s weekly email ‘The Eds Up’ is an office favourite so we were excited to get our hands on his first book. I Contain Multitudes takes an in-depth look at a subject which is tiny (physically) yet huge (significantly) and reexamines the world around us by focusing on all things microbes. Among the book’s revelations is the fact that the bacteria on your arm are more similar to those on a stranger’s arm than they are to the bacteria inside your own mouth.

 1,342 QI Facts To Leave You Flabbergasted by John Lloyd, John Mitchinson, James Harkin and Anne Miller

A sparkling new selection of 1,342 facts from the QI team, including the humdingers that Google searches for ‘How to put on a condom’ peak at 10.28pm, emoji is the fastest growing language in history, tanks are exempt from London’s Congestion charge, 1 in 3 children pretend to believe in Santa Claus to keep their parents happy, black coffee drinkers are more likely to be psychopaths, the world’s only Cornish pasty museum is in Mexico, and in 2015, America’s ‘National Hero Dog Award’ was won by a cat.


Behind the scenes at the Bodleian Library: The making of Bodleianalia



In the next few weeks one of the joys of the new students starting at Oxford University will be picking up their Bodleian library card, allowing them access to Britain’s oldest university library and the treasures within.

I had the pleasure of receiving my very own Bodleian library card last year (despite being quite some years off a fresh-faced fresher!) when I began my research for my book about the library, Bodleianalia. As a complete library geek it was an absolute thrill to get a behind-the-scenes look at this library and to talk to some of the many amazing people who work there who so kindly shared their expertise and some juicy morsels about this fascinating institution.

Library Tour

One of the first things I did when compiling Bodleianalia was to go on the “official tour” of

The Divinity School

the library. A very knowledgeable guide showed me around the oldest parts of the library – the beautiful Divinity School with its lofty ceilings – home to a chair fashioned from the timbers of Sir Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hind; Duke Humfrey’s Library (which was used as Hogwart’s library in the Harry Potter films) where the guide revealed that in 1550 the library was gutted and the books burnt so only about five of the original books from that time survive in the library today; and Arts and Selden End – with many wonderful old books still housed behind the original grilles. This ancient part of the library is absolutely beautiful and has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years, providing a real glimpse into the library of the past.

Marvels of the Weston Library

As a counterpoint to the historical heart of the library is the brand new Weston Library, which after remodelling reopened in 2015. It is a light, modern, airy space with a fantastic gallery of treasures including J. R. R. Tolkien’s original hand-drawn illustrations for The Hobbit, a Gutenberg Bible, and my personal favourite – the “autobiography” of Toby the Sapient Pig.

The Weston Library

I had the pleasure of getting a tour of the conservation department, where they monitor and mend delicate items from the collection. Virginia Llado-Buisan, Head of Conservation and Collection Care and her team very kindly talked me through the fascinating process of fasciculing – a system developed at the Bodleian to protect and preserve single-sheet items in the collection so that they can be safely consulted. I discovered that on average 21,056 single-sheet items were pasted each year into a fascicule!

Also at the Weston Library I had the privilege of picking the brains of Head of Rare Books, Sarah Wheale. Sarah very patiently answered all my many questions on cataloguing, classification and the vagaries of shelfmarks so that I might unveil their mysteries to readers of Bodleianalia. To further my understanding Sarah gave me access to some wonderful books and records about the history of cataloguing at the Bodleian, including an account of an amazing system of colour-coding the books by subject which, proving too complicated, was abandoned in the mid nineteenth century. Traces of the coloured stickers remain on some items in the collection today, though unfortunately their colours have become so faded they are indistinguishable.

Facts, Figures and Curious Tales

Shelf of rare books at the Weston Library

One of the greatest sources of information for Bodleianalia was the amazingly helpful Dr Frankie Wilson, Head of Assessment. Frankie collects and collates all the statistics on the library and was a mine of information. I threw many awkward questions at her (how many desks in the Radcliffe Camera? Which is the longest book in the collection? Which is the largest library? What are the top five languages of books in the collection? How many miles of shelving are there in the Book Storage Facility? What was the most expensive acquisition in the library? Which is the smallest book in the library? And so on ad infinitum…) which she very kindly answered, often adding some extra nugget of information which led me on to yet more questions.Bod_jacket

And so, with my head full of fabulous facts about the Bodleian Library and a bag full of books, I returned back to my little study in Cambridge and wrote it all into Bodleianalia. I hope that I managed to translate my wonder and fascination with this amazing library with its long history and numerous treasures so that readers will enjoy a real glimpse behind the scenes of the Bodleian.

Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library is published in October 2016. Order your copy here.

Eponyms from Greek & Roman Mythology


Many commonly (or not so commonly) used words have their origins in characters from Greek or Roman history/mythology. Some stories behind these words named after people are below:

Draconianexcessively harsh laws

Mercury: Roman messenger god

Named after the Greek law maker named Draco, who in 621 BCE passed a number of very strict laws, including the death penalty for minor infringements.

Mercurialsomeone with sudden changes in mood or opinion.

Named from Mercury the Roman messenger god, who was changeable in nature.

Narcissistichaving an excessive obsession with one’s own appearance.

From the myth of Narcissus a beautiful hunter who caught sight of his own reflection in a pool of water and fell madly in love with himself. Unable to tear himself away he spent all his time gazing lovingly at his own reflection, losing his will to live and eventually dying.

Martialrelating to war.

Named from Mars, the Roman God of war.

Narcissus: painting by Caravaggio

Tantalisingto be tormented by something desirable but unobtainable

From the myth of Tantalus who was handed down an eternal punishment to stand forever in a pool of water, which receded every time he stooped down to drink and with delicious low-hanging fruit just out of his grasp.

Thespianan actor

From Thespis, said to be the first actor to take to the stage in Ancient Greece.

Eroticrelating to sexual desire

Named from Eros, the Greek god of love.

Mentora trusted adviser

From the character Mentor in Homer’s Odyssey. Mentor was Odysseus’s good friend who gave sage advice during his epic voyage.

Panicuncontrollable fear and anxiety

From the Greek god Pan, who could cause sudden, contagious fear in people and animals through the power of his voice.

This is just a short summary of some of the eponyms I found from Greek and Roman mythology, please leave a comment to share others.

The Last Words of Evariste Galois


Evariste Galois (1811–32) was an extremely promising French mathematician however a series of strange events and a tragic early death would conspire to obscure his talents for many years.

Born in Bourg-la-Reine near Paris, France in 1811, Evariste’s father was Nicolas-Gabriel Galois, the village

Evariste Galois by his brother, Alfred

mayor. From the age of twelve Evariste attended the lycée of Louis-le-Grand in Paris, but it was a time of great upheaval at the school and many pupils were expelled and the quality of the teaching greatly suffered. Evariste began to tire of his studies, all except for mathematics, for which he developed a precocious talent.

At the age of fifteen, Evariste was already studying the original papers of the celebrated eighteenth -century mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange. He began to focus only on mathematics to the detriment to his other studies and despite working at a very advanced level in maths (he studied Leçons sur le calcul des fonctions which was aimed at professional mathematicians) he twice failed to secure a place at Paris’ prestigious École Polytechnique and much to his bitter disappointment instead went to the more modest École Normale. Here he continued to excel at mathematics and was able to make some very complex leaps of logic, however in his other studies he was unusually weak. His literature examiner remarked of his exam:

This is the only student who has answered me poorly, he knows absolutely nothing. I was told that this student has an extraordinary capacity for mathematics. This astonishes me greatly, for, after his examination, I believed him to have but little intelligence.’

Mathematical genius

At the age of just eighteen Evariste began publishing papers, one on continued fractions made it into Annales de mathématiques but another paper on the solvability of algebraic equations which he submitted to the French Academy of Sciences was lost and never published. Evariste’s disappointments were compounded by the tragic death of his father who, depressed by political infighting, committed suicide. His father’s death deeply affected the young Evariste and understandably caused him to behave somewhat erratically on occasion and become more engaged in political causes.

In 1830 Evariste re-wrote the lost paper he had previously submitted it to the French Academy of Sciences to be considered for the Grand Prix of the Academy in Mathematics. However in a strange quirk of fate his paper was lost once again as he gave it to Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Fourier who took it home but unfortunately died a few weeks later and the paper was never found amongst his things.

Evariste was by now becoming increasingly political and in 1830 he penned a pro-Republican letter which got him expelled from the École Normale and he was twice arrested and once imprisoned for six months for his stridently Republican views.

In 1831 Evariste, demonstrating quite some determination, for a third time re-wrote his piece on the solvability of algebraic equations and again submitted it to the academy. This time it was read but received a negative critique – which modern mathematicians have subsequently suggested was simply because they failed to follow his advanced and original thinking and falsely presumed his theories to be wrong.


7_102014_burr-hamilton-duel8201On 30th May 1832 twenty-year-old Evariste Galois took part in an ill-advised duel, the reasons for which are murky but some have suggested it was staged to resemble a police ambush, others have indicated that it was over a woman, Mademoiselle Stéphanie-Félicie Poterin du Motel. What we do know is that the night before the duel Evariste was aware he might not survive and so stayed up all night, feverishly writing out his many mathematical ideas, which he then sent to his friend, Auguste Chevalier.

His theories safely committed to paper, Evariste met his opponent but was shot in the stomach. Hours later a peasant discovered his prone body and he was taken to hospital where he managed to relay some tragic last words to his dear brother, Alfred:

Don’t cry. I need all my courage to die at twenty.’

Galois’s papers were annotated and posthumously published in 1846. These ideas and conjectures were built upon and refined by fellow mathematicians Joseph Liouville and Camille Jordan and have gone on to form the basis of group theory, finally bringing the brilliance of Evariste Galois to light.


For more Famous Last Words see my new book Famous Last Words: An Anthology published by Bodleian Library Publishing on 29 April 2016.

Bodleianalia: my upcoming book!

I am very pleased and excited to announce that Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library a book I have been working on with Violet Moller will be out in October 2016!

Here is a blurb on the book:

Bod_jacketWhich is the smallest book in the Bodleian Library? Who complained when their secret pen name was revealed in the library’s catalogue? How many miles of shelving are there in the Book Storage Facility? What is the story behind the library’s refusal to lend a book to King Charles I? And, what is fasciculing? The answers to these questions and many more can be found inside this intriguing miscellaneous collection of curious facts and stories about the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Home to more than 12 million books and a vast array of treasures including the Gutenberg bible, J.R.R. Tolkien’s hand-painted watercolours for The Hobbit, Shakespeare’s First Folio and four thirteenth-century copies of Magna Carta, the Bodleian Library is one of the most magnificent libraries in the world with a fascinating history.

Bodleianalia delights in uncovering some of the lesser known facts about Britain’s oldest university library. Through a combination of lists, statistics and bitesize nuggets of information, it reveals many of the quirks of fate, eccentric characters and remarkable events which have contributed to the making of this renowned institution. The perfect book for trivia-lovers and bibliophiles, it also offers readers a behind-the-scenes peek into the complex workings of a modern, world-class library in the twenty-first century.


It was such a pleasure to work on this book and get such fantastic access to the amazing Bodleian Library and the people who work there. Over the past few months I have been trundling back and forth from Cambridge to Oxford (where happily my parents still reside) to visit the Bodleian and meet librarians, book conservators and keepers of the records to research Bodleianalia.

I hope the fruits of my research will make Bodleianalia an interesting read and that readers will share in my fascination with this august library and enjoy a glimpse behind the scenes.

Bodleianalia: Curious Facts about Britain’s Oldest University Library will be published in October 2016 by Bodleian Library Publishing.

Meet the explorers

The Age of Discovery was fuelled by the dreams of a number of fascinating characters who set sail to find unknown lands, collect new commodities and pursue glory. Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins uses the first-hand accounts from a wide variety of explorers from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries to bring to life the wonder of encountering exotic animals, foods and peoples for the first time. The story behind these voyages and the people who made them possible are themselves compelling.

I thought it might be nice to introduce some of the explorers whose vivid accounts of their travels furnished me with a wealth of information for the book.

Meet the explorers

George Barrington (1755–1804) provides the perfect story of redemption. Arrested as a petty pickpocket, Barrington was shipped to Australia on a convict ship, later gaining emancipation and proving himself to be an upright sort of fellow he was made high constable of Parramatta.

George Barrington

Andrew Battel (1565–1614) was an English privateer (some may say pirate) who was kidnapped by the Portuguese in 1590 and taken into the interior of Africa where he spent many years under the control of his Portuguese masters trading with the natives. When he was released some twenty years later in 1610 he travelled back to his home in Essex. There he recounted the fascinating story of the people, cultures and animals he had encountered to Samuel Purchas, a keen collector and compiler of travelogues, who published Battell’s account which provided the first European description of Angola and the Congo.

Hapless sixteenth-century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Mendez Pinto (c.1509–83) suffered several shipwrecks, was sold into slavery on at least three separate occasions and was attacked by pirates but lived to tell the, at times far-fetched, tale.

John Saris (c.1580–1643) captained the first British ship to land in Japan and secured a trade deal with the Japanese. However on his return to England he disgraced himself by showing off his collection of Japanese Shunga (erotic paintings) in polite society.

William Dampier (NPG 538)
Captain William Dampier, Oil on canvas, c. 1697-1698

Captain William Dampier (1651–1715), was the first man to circumnavigate the globe three times and during his voyages was involved in a wealth of adventures, including getting court martialled for cruelty, becoming involved in piracy and rescuing Andrew Selkirk from an uninhabited island in the South Pacific where he had been marooned alone for over four years (and is thought to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).

Lionel Wafer (1640–1705): After quarrelling with Captain William Dampier on a journey through South America he was abandoned on the Isthmus of Darien in Panama and went to live with the Cuna Indians. Wafer studied the Indian’s culture and language and became assimilated, taking on their dress and sporting a nose ring. After jilting the Indian chief’s daughter he eventually reunited with Captain Dampier and travelled back to England where he wrote an enthralling account of his travels.

An image from Lionel Wafer’s travelogue

It is interesting to note that many of these men dabbled in criminality, indicating perhaps that to adventure into the unknown at that time an individual needs a certain devil-may-care attitude. However we are greatly in their debt for recording their stories and sharing with us the wonderment of discovering new lands, foods, animals and peoples.

Penguins, Pineapples and Pangolins: First Encounters with the Exotic is published on 7 April 2016 by British Library Publishing.

The importance of a book review

Book reviews are becoming ever more important these days as more and more people chose their books online. Book bloggers and reviewers can be vital to the success of a book. The power is in your hands to help your favourite authors do well, freeing them to write more of the books you love.

On Amazonfour-star-reviews

Amazon reviews can help a book to become more visible, the more reviews it gets the better the book will get promoted on Amazon.

After 20–25 reviews Amazon includes the author’s books on ‘you might like’ and ‘also bought’ lists.

After 50–70 reviews Amazon puts the book in a more prominent position and may include it in a newsletter.

Help an author, leave a review!

So if you have read and liked a book, please help the author by leaving a review. It only takes minutes but can really make a difference to how well a book sells.