Fantasy with a healthy dose of reality: Court of Twilight by Mareth Griffith

Ivy is not having a good week. She’s just lost her job at the Eirecom call centre. Strange men are loitering outside her flat. And now, her reclusive, plant-obsessed flatmate has disappeared, and Ivy might be the only person who can find her.

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Blending contemporary life with ancient mythology, Court of Twilight is an inventive fantasy novel set in modern-day Dublin. The book follows 20-year-old Ivy, newly unemployed, as she searches for her flatmate. Along the way she relearns everything she thought she knew about fairytales.

The success of Court of Twilight hinges on the characterisation of Ivy. Thankfully, Ivy is convincing and extremely relatable. She is doggedly determined, and takes everyday and otherworldly challenges in her stride. I love the blending of normality with fantasy here—Ivy is as likely to be hunting for a new job as she is hunting down fairytale life forms. There’s a grounded realism you don’t often experience in fantasy novels.

Occasionally Ivy is a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to acknowledging the magic being revealed around her. But just because I know Ivy’s in a fantasy novel, doesn’t mean she does. I expect magic around every corner, but she’s more worried about how annoyed her flatmate will be if she kills of all her plants. I loved Ivy’s relationship with her flamate, Demi. These are not sisters who have sworn to defend each other until death. They’re two people who have been thrown together by circumstance, whose friendship has slowly blossomed in spite of their various idiosyncrasies. But Ivy won’t let anything or anyone stop her from helping Demi.

Characterisation elsewhere was also strong. Each person has their own individual agenda, and even the characters we like the most act questionably. There’s a great deal of moral ambiguity, which makes Court of Twilight an arresting and unpredictable read. There’s a level of threat beyond classic “good versus evil”, which was refreshing. Pacing is leisurely, but this was never a problem for me, particularly as the build up to the denouement was excellent.

Everything about this felt new and imaginative—the concept of the novel as a whole, the kind of threats faced by the characters, the concept of the fantastical elements. I never knew where it was going and I’m desperate for the sequel so that my questions can be answered.

Favourite quotation: “Ambrose, for his part, didn’t look terribly happy, either…Then again, Ivy had never seen Ambrose in anything remotely close to a pleasant mood. Perhaps being irritable was simply a permanent feature, like a receding hairline, or a bulbous nose.”

Mareth Griffith, Court of Twilight (Parvus Press, 2017)

Thank you to Mareth Griffith and Parvus Press via NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Innovative magical textbook: Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Owen Macready is your average 13-year-old boy. In fact, he prides himself on his averageness: average grades, average looks, average life. When Owen obtains a magical spell book, however, his life becomes anything but average. He must keep the book safe from the evil Euclideans and mafia henchmen, protect his friends, and try to bring his family back together.

Sorcery for Beginners by Matt Harry

Boy finds spell book, boy finds he can do magic, boy must fight evil in order to save the world. It’s been done before, you might think. But Sorcery for Beginners, like its protagonist, is far from average. The book is formatted as a textbook, so that the reader can learn magic along with Owen. Owen’s story is presented as a case study, demonstrating the practicalities and pitfalls of learning magic, and the values expected of magical candidates. Accompanying the case study there are instructions for spells, diagrams, and tidbits of trivia.

It’s a clever way of presenting a classic good versus evil story in a refreshing way. The illustrations and typography by Juliane Crump are fantastic—I especially love the pages outlining how to do spells, and the images of the Codex Arcanum. The trivia asides are often very funny:
Cryptozoology is the study of animals whose existence has not been proven (or accepted) by the world at large. It is but one of many so-called Arcane Fields, which include Sorcery, Alchemy, Time Manipulation, Paranormal Studies, Inter-Dimensional Travel, and Cryptocartography. Each is deserving of its own easy-to-read help guide, but I do have a life, you know. (p.402).
Occasionally, however, both trivia and illustrations were a little distracting. I found it off-putting that sometimes the illustrations do not match up with what is described in the text (on pp.359-360, for example, a “line of dark figures” is replaced with a helicopter in the illustration). When in a particularly tense sequence, having to break the flow of the story to read an informative footnote broke my sense of immersion. This could have been helped by having more trivia towards the beginning of the book, and less at key plot points.

The plot itself is action-packed with plenty of excitement to keep you reading. The prose is lively and accessible, and the characters engaging and relatable, especially Owen and Perry. I particularly enjoyed the imaginative spell-casting, which combines some sort of Tai Chi-inspired somatic movements with magical objects and incantations in various languages.

There were a number of formatting issues in the kindle edition I read, which I understand have now been resolved.

Overall, a hugely enjoyable read, ideal for fans of Eoin Colfer and Lemony Snicket.

Favourite quotation: “Old English is an early form of the English language that was used by residents of Great Britain between at least the mid-fifth century and the mid-twelfth century. Its alphabet was comprised of runic letters and pre-dated Latin. To read it is to be amazed that the Brits ever learned how to communicate.” p.28.

Matt Harry, Sorcery for Beginners (Inkshares, 2017)

Imaginative and unpredictable: Keith Rosson’s Smoke City

This book is mad. And I mean that in the best way. I don’t think I’ve read anything this imaginative or unpredictable in a long time. Smoke City has three interweaving narratives. Fistly, we have the story of Mike Vale, a self-destructive, alcoholic, washed-up artist. Secondly, we have Marvin Deitz, an unassuming record shop owner, who’s trying to convince his therapist he only has one week left to live. Finally, we have the mysterious spectres (smokes) who are appearing all over the country – silent, insubstantial, vaguely ominous. By the way, Marvin is also the reincarnation of Geoffroy, the man responsible for the death of Joan of Arc. The book traverses the 15th and 21st century, as we learn about Geoffroy’s experiences of executing and torturing: “The prisoners themselves became interchangeable. Bodies were interchangeable. There was little to differentiate one man from the next; such was the raw honesty of the flesh.”

Smoke City Keith Rosson

I spent much of the first part of the novel wondering how on earth all of these rather disparate storylines would weave together. Even though I was unsure of where the story was heading, I felt in safe hands, as Keith Rosson’s writing is just fantastic. It’s not every author who can cover the topics of death, torture, and art, and do so in a way that’s lyrical and vivid. His descriptions of the troubled lives of Mike, Marvin, and Marvin’s previous life, Geoffroy, are raw, brutal, and honest. In these two (two and a half?) characters, we have some of the least appealing protagonists I have perhaps come across. A reincarnated torturer and executioner. An artist whose reliance on alcohol has lead him to betray himself and those closest to him. And yet Rosson’s brilliance is in getting the reader to empathise with these characters, even cheer them on their way.

When those storylines finally weave together, it’s eminently satisfying. Everything finally makes sense. Of course this book is about a failed artist, ghosts, and a reincarnated executioner. What else would I want to read about?

Favourite quotation: “I was intimately familiar with death and its equations. I had long been intimate with the stilled architecture of the corpse. The decay, the sugary-sweet stink of it all, the odor like a mixture of shit and rotten fruit. The primacy of rotted meat. The simple subtraction of animation pulled from a body, a face. Doing all I had done throughout the centuries, I knew death. I wanted it. I sought it, courted it. And yet none of that mattered when I stepped onto the fourth floor. There, I raged against death, I leaned snarling against it.”

Keith Rosson, Smoke City (Meerkat Press, 2018)

I received a free advance copy of this book via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review. 

Quotation of the month – Italo Calvino on how books change our lives

Mr Palomar is a collection of philosophical meditations, as beautifully written as they are stylistically inventive. This is a quotation about books and about life, and how we construct our own narrative. But it particularly appeals to me because I’ve always been fascinated by how a book can mean something completely different to you depending on when you read it. When I first tried to read Gwyneth Lewis’s Sunbathing in the Rain I gave up after a couple of chapters. Her writing about her experiences with depression was simply too raw, too painfully real, for me to continue. When I returned to it later, I found it full of hope. That second time, it quite honestly changed my life.

Italo Calvino's Mr Palomar

“A person’s life consists of a collection of events, the last of which could also change the meaning of the whole, not because it counts more than the previous ones but because once they are included in a life, events are arranged in an order that is not chronological but rather corresponds to an inner architecture. A person, for example, reads in adulthood a book that is important for him, and it makes him say, ‘How could I have lived without having read it!’ and also, ‘What a pity I did not read it in my youth!’ Well, these statements do not have much meaning, especially the second, because after he has read that book, his life becomes the life of a person who has read that book, and it is of little importance whether he read it early or late, because now his life before that reading also assumes a form shaped by that reading.” – Italo Calvino, Mr Palomar – The meditations of Palomar: Learning to be dead

Adventures in Archives: Soundscapes and Tissue Paper

I have only been a volunteer for a few weeks, but I am already convinced that Milton Keynes Museum is an idyllic place to work. Sat in my ivory tower, poring over the intimate details of stubbed toes, lacerated fingers, and traumatic orchitis (yes, really), I am kept company by the unique soundscape of the museum. The rumble of excitement as the museum opens and children pile into the Victorian Garden below my window, the mellow oompahs and chiming melodies emanating from the music room a few rooms away from my own. I punctuate this soundtrack with a few interjections of my own whenever I encounter something particularly interesting, or, more often, when I need help.

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Cover of Accident Record Book from 1909-1910 (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/19)

This soundtrack accompanies me as I continue my work listing the accident record books of Wolverton Railway Works. Each of the books has been attended to and ordered by an unknown person, meaning that they’re roughly kept in chronological order, with the dates each book was in use written on a label on the front. The books themselves, dating from the late nineteenth century onwards, are quite fragile, with very thin pages, and disintegrating leather bindings. So someone has gone to great lengths to wrap each book in tissue paper. This is a mixed blessing. As we’ve all experienced, there’s a thrill to unwrapping an item in order to find out precisely what’s inside. But while these tissue paper parcels might have me thinking romantic and faintly idiotic thoughts like “making a present out of the past…”, in reality, it’s really annoying. I’m not sure how much protection this paper is giving since the books are kept in sturdy boxes. The tape used to secure the paper has sometimes been stuck to the books themselves, meaning I inevitably cause slight damage just trying to get at the books’ contents. I work in fear of those tiny ripping noises that accompany the unwrapping, especially as the pages themselves are tracing-paper thin.

 

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Copperplate writing from 1919 (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/29, p.194)

Once inside, the books are as far removed from my expectations of accident record books as could be. My own experience of accident record books normally involves illegible biro scrawls in a notebook from Poundland. But these books are, well, beautiful. Marbled covers, faded with age. Maroon leather bindings. Careful cursive lettering. It is clear that huge care went into creating these record books, not just in their appearance, but in the level of detail recorded: the number of hours someone was on duty before they were injured, what equipment they were supplied with, what lighting conditions there were. Was this detail essential for Wolverton Works to protect themselves against potential lawsuits and compensation claims? But if the books were purely functional, why make them beautiful? And despite their flimsy pages, it feels like these books were meant to last.

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Front cover of an Accident Record Book from 1925-26 (Milton Keynes Museum, WWO/38)

As I continue listing the books, more questions than answers emerge. So far I’ve only covered about 30 years’ worth of books (38 records in total), so perhaps more will become clear as I go along. With each book consisting of 1000 pages, there’s certainly a lot of information to be unearthed.

Part One of Adventures in Archives: Milton Keynes Museum
Milton Keynes Museum website

 

 

 

Adventures in Archives: Milton Keynes Museum

Within the museum, there is a cellar. Within the cellar, there is a cupboard. Within the cupboard there are many boxes. Within these boxes there are books. And within these books? Well, within these books are listed the accidents that occurred at Wolverton Railway Works from the late 19th century onwards. Yep, Accident Record Books. Anti-climactic? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. I have no special interest in railways, beyond a long-held love of The Railway Children. I have no particular knowledge of accidents or their records (although I am insufferably proud I recently trained in First Aid). I certainly didn’t expect then, that within a few hours spent with these books, I’d be addicted. The thing is, these books aren’t just about railways, or accidents. They’re about people. Everything about these books, from the different hands painstakingly or hurriedly writing in the pages, to the accounts of the accidents themselves, tell stories about people.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been entrusted with listing these books, in the hope that Milton Keynes Museum can gain a better understanding of what their archive holds. This basically entails me going through each accident record book to figure out when it was in use, what details are included in its pages, and giving it a reference number. I also have to be aware of who created them, which for the most part, at the moment, is the London and North Western Railway Company.

I’ve been interested in working in archives for a long time, but this is my first real taste. Thanks to the patience of the Museum’s Archivist, I’ve already learned a huge amount. This includes really basic things, like the need to support pages when you’re turning them, or how to use a book sofa to protect the book’s spine. From my experience cataloguing medieval manuscripts as part of my Masters degree I already knew wearing white gloves (unless you’re working with photographs or need to protect yourself from dirt) was a useless fantasy perpetuated by the media. But I didn’t know that archivists had an ideal pencil. It’s a 2B—dark enough to see, soft enough to erase without leaving a mark. There’s a lot to think about, but this at least is easy for me to remember, thanks to my childhood obsession with a rhyme by Spike Milligan:

Said Hamlet to Ophelia,
I’ll draw a sketch of thee.
What kind of pencil shall I use?
2B or not 2B?

I also have to be reigned back on my enthusiasm when it comes to bits of paper. Coming across a crumpled bit of paper tucked between the leaves, I cautiously unfolded it, and found it was covered in scrawlings of various numbers. What could it be? Vital statistics about the lives or limbs lost at the works? A code concealing railway secrets? It was a bookmark, and I was gently dissuaded from creating a separate record for it.

Through these books, I’ve seen 30 years of history from a unique perspective. I find myself lingering over the pages in search of particular names, or trying to decipher faded ink to figure out exactly what happened in a certain incident. I’m already getting attached to various characters who crop up more often than others. I never particularly understood the craze for genealogy, but now I’m totally hooked—and these people aren’t even my family.

Part Two of Adventures in Archives: Soundscapes and Tissue Paper
For more information about Milton Keynes Museum, please visit their website.

In Defence of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

This is not a great way of beginning a review, but I don’t have anything particularly interesting to say about this film. I don’t have anything insightful or witty to add to the plethora of reviews. I just feel it’s important for someone to say something positive about this epic, beautiful, engrossing film. There are a lot of negative reviews out there, with the film gaining only 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, and 2 out of 5 stars in both The Guardian and Empire. And it looks like these have had a negative impact on the public—according to Nathan Rabin, as of 4th August, the film had only made back a fifth of its $177m budget in box office takings worldwide. And I think that’s immensely sad, because I absolutely loved this film.

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It’s epic, in every sense. Its scope is huge, conceptually and physically. Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are special operatives charged with preserving order across the 28th century universe. They travel across galaxies to prevent a threat deep in Alpha—a city that is an amalgamation of a thousand planets, where different species have converged to share knowledge and culture. This alone should be praised as a wonderful celebration of diversity in a time of fear of difference. We visit an inter-dimensional market, see a shape-shifting burlesque show, get suckered in by a telepathic jellyfish. If it sounds mad, that’s because it absolutely is. Mad and beautiful. An alien race with pearl-like skin. Treacherous luminous butterflies. Valerian catapulting through dozens of Alpha regions in the blink of an eye.

Valerian pearl people

Is the pacing a little off? Yes. On one occasion the tension is cranked up to breaking point, only to be interrupted by Rihanna playing a shape-shifting dancer—Cabaret plus aliens. Meanwhile Laureline is in the middle of a life-threatening situation that is more farcical than frightening. And after this quick burlesque/comedy break, we’re back to ratcheting up the tension. But that scene with Rihanna is just mesmerising, so I forgave Luc Besson immediately.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Am I invested in the romance? No. And maybe the reviews are right, the chemistry leaves something to be desired and the romantic dialogue is as corny as can be. But I wasn’t there for romance. I was there for two people uncovering a genocidal plot and saving multiple alien races across the universe.

Why does every film have to be something slick, to get us straight from point A to point B? Why does it have to be polished within an inch of its life, spoonfeeding the audience with the requisite action and romance sequences? I often had no idea where Valerian was taking me, but I was totally happy to strap in for the ride. Isn’t there something to be said for sitting back and enjoying a breathtaking, imaginative, well-crafted spectacle with the most mind-blowing world-building we’ve seen in a long time? Robbie Collin has put it far better than I could: “Valerian is a film to wallow in, not follow, and if you’re tuned to its extra-terrestrial wavelength, you wouldn’t cut a second.” Let’s learn to wallow a bit more.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop by Veronica Henry

Julius runs an independent bookshop in rural Oxfordshire and, listening to his customers’ woes and desires, acts as an informal therapist. When he dies he leaves a hole in the community and in the heart of his daughter, Emilia. She must decide whether to keep the bookshop open or let her father’s dreams die with him.

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Reading How to Find Love in a Bookshop was much like eating a slice of homemade chocolate cake. It’s sweet and self-indulgent; a slice of comfort-reading that might not be very nutritious but leaves you feeling warm and satisfied.

How to Find Love in a Bookshop consists of multiple romantic storylines which all link in some way to the bookshop. And when I say multiple, I mean multiple: there are at least seven different relationships. Told in the third person from the perspective of several distinct voices, it’s a short book at only 367 pages. Given how many different stories those few pages cover, it’s not surprising that it’s a fairly surface-level read. It’s also relatively sedate – there is little drama or tension other than the question of whether Emilia will keep the bookshop open. Even this is only one of several storylines, so the tension is lost in a sea of other stories. But each character even without much page-time is well-rounded, relatable, and the dialogue is great. It’s impressive we get to know the characters and care about them as much as we do.

It’s also wonderful to read a book that just oozes passion about books.  One character asks another, “Have you got a book about a man who takes ages to realise the person he loves has been right under his nose all along?” “There’s loads of those…” she responds (p.359). It’s a wonderfully self-reflexive moment. “Fine,” Henry seems to be saying, “I may not be doing anything new. But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing it well and I just know how much you’re enjoying it.” Henry herself notes in the suggestions at the back of the book, “For me, the title is more thematic than specific – the idea you will always find something to love in a book shop. It’s about a love of books and reading as much as romance. Books will never let you down: they are there to provide escape, comfort, inspiration…What’s not to love?” (p.373)

Favourite quotation: “So that was why people read. Because books explained things: how you thought, how you behaved, and made you realise you were not alone in doing what you did or feeling what you felt.” (p.297)

How to Find Love in a Book Shop, Veronica Henry (Orion Books, 2016)

The Pursuit of Happiness by Ruth Whippman

A cynical Brit moves to America and finds that everyone seems to be obsessed with the pursuit of happiness. She examines what happiness means, how various people are trying to attain it, and whether the pursuit of happiness is making everyone feel worse than they would otherwise.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman

Each chapter addresses a different way in which people search for happiness, including religion, family, work, and social media. Whippman’s main goal seems to be dismantle the various ways in which Americans choose to pursue happiness. Each chapter seems to follow a rough trajectory of: Whippman suspicious of latest happiness fad, Whippman tests out fad, Whippman finds potentially interesting grain of truth buried deep within fad, Whippman successfully debunks pseudo-science of fad. It’s more an amusing travelogue than a ‘how to’ guide. The book perhaps didn’t uncover the profound truths I was hoping would revolutionise my own search for happiness, but it was still an engaging and interesting read.

My favourite moments included her assessment of social media, where the emphasis is not on how happy you are, but how happy you look: “we live in the era of the curated life” (p.197). I also enjoyed her investigation of the Landmark Forum, a personal development program in which you pay to have your understanding of yourself torn apart in front of an audience. You’re told that essentially, if you’re not happy, it’s all your fault. Whippman notes, “Buried deep within this unpleasant showpiece is an interesting idea. It is true that all of us are constantly constructing interpretations of the events in our lives, and failing to recognise that these are not facts…But I can’t help thinking that the stories we tell ourselves are built up over years, crafted for complex psychological reasons” (pp.50-1). Having a stranger tear apart those stories in front of an audience then, Whippman concludes, is perhaps not the best way to achieve happiness.

I was also morbidly fascinated by her account of Tony Hsieh, a CEO who attempts to eliminate the boundaries between work and play. After selling his company, Zappos, to Google, he turned his hand to city planning. He purchased the 60-acre site of Downtown Las Vegas, aiming to turn it into a start-up city; a manufactured, utopian community where work and life were not considered separate. He pitched the idea as “playing SimCity in real life” (pp.93-4). People were allowed to join the Downtown Project if they were the kind of person Hsieh would like to have a beer with, not if they had a flawless business plan. Key to the plan was the way people interacted. Hsieh developed a system of measuring “collisions” (i.e. interactions between people). The more collisions, Hsieh and his team thought, the happier and more productive the community. They came up with ways of manufacturing more collisions, by making places hard to get to so people would have to bump into each other, including moving around key shops so that people would constantly have to take new routes (this idea, at least, turned out to be too impractical). They even measured the results by tracking people’s mobile phones, mapping their residents’ movements without their knowledge. The project doesn’t seem to have had the impact Hsieh was hoping for – Whippman writes that Dowtown is now mostly deserted.

There’s so much to like, even love, about this book. The pursuit of happiness, in its myriad forms, is a fascinating topic, and Whippman’s approach to it is rigorous, uncompromising, and wryly funny. I did have a few minor quibbles. Whippman’s book occupies that uneasy boundary between the academic and the popular. Her work is clearly well researched and thoughtful, though perhaps a little biased. It’s also very accessible and easy to read. Sometimes, though, I felt it leaned rather unnecessarily towards the accessible end of things. An example of this was the ends of chapters. Each chapter ends on a little cliffhanger, introducing the topic of the next chapter, for example: “But the deeper I get into middle-class Californian parenting articles, the more I start to notice some rather strange behaviour going on.” (p.118). It’s a little, well, dramatic. It felt like a Dan Brown-style hook to keep the reader turning the pages. It had the reverse effect on me.

My other minor quibble was with the final chapter. Having spent the entire book debunking the search for happiness, and the previous chapter obliterating the positive psychology movement, the book ends on an anti-climax. Whippman almost does an about-turn, essentially saying, ‘but I’m settling into America and it’s all good really and yay, happiness’. It’s an uplifting note to end on, sure, but it doesn’t fit with the cynical tone of the rest of the book. It felt a little jarring.

Whippman’s conclusions, though, were optimistic, if not groundbreaking. Happiness, she finds, “depends on other people” (p.32). The importance of community is a thread which is woven through each chapter. One of her most comforting insights emerges as she debunks the aims of the positive psychology movement: “Happiness is so individualised and complex, so dependent on a myriad of factors – circumstances and life events, upbringing, culture, relationships, preferences and personality quirks – that anything averaged out over a group is unlikely to do much to describe the lived experience of any one person.” (p.221). No one, not the positive psychologists, not the Landmark Forum, our Facebook friends, or Tony Hsieh, can tell us what our own individual brand of happiness should look like. So maybe we should stop worrying about it so much.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Ruth Whippman (Hutchinson, 2016)

 

Quotation of the Week – Caitlin Moran, again, On Books, again

Yes, Caitlin Moran was the source of my last quotation of the week. And yes, I’m aware that my “quotation of the week” feature happens about once a month, at most. But since my ambition/optimism dwarfs my sense of reality, “quotation of the week” it shall remain. And look, I actually read something by Caitlin Moran this time, instead of just listening to her talk. Ok, I didn’t read the whole book, but sometimes you just need to read a chapter to know that it’s great. And a quotation this brilliant, on such an important topic, had to be added to the collection. Enjoy.

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft, and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. One a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate ‘need’ for ‘stuff’. A mall — the shops — are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.”

Caitlin Moran, Moranthology (Ebury Press, 2012), p.211.