Roma Agrawal’s Built: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Structures is inspired by her successful career as a structural engineer. The first project she worked on is a familiar landmark for me in Newcastle – the Northumbria University footbridge – and she’s gone on to be involved in the design of London’s famous Shard. Built is split into chapters united around kinds of materials or kinds of structures – Agrawal describes how to make concrete, tells us why London Bridge has always been falling down, explains why buildings have got so much taller since the mid nineteenth century, and explores the ancient water-transport system of kariz in Iran. Funnily enough, my favourite chapter was on London’s sewers, where Agrawal explains that even the massive overhaul of the system by engineer Joseph Bazalgette in the nineteenth century hasn’t been enough to keep up with the city’s population growth, leading to 62 million tonnes of untreated sewage being released into the Thames every year when rainwater causes the system to overflow. To deal with this problem, engineers are planning another sewage system underneath Bazalgette’s to catch the excess waste and treat it; the Tideway Tunnel. As Agrawal explains, it isn’t the most elegant solution – but engineers have to work with what’s there.
Built is perhaps more educational than enjoyable. Agrawal’s writing is clear, but not especially beautiful. I was struck, once again, with how difficult it is to get the balance right when writing popular science (or at least, writing popular books on STEM disciplines). The explanations and diagrams in Built are undoubtedly simplistic, and having studied Mechanics for AS Level maths, I wanted a little more detail. And yet, Agrawal could easily have lost me if she’d made it just a bit too complex. I wondered if the solution was to put in less of the material on ductility, tension and friction and more of the stuff on macro-level questions like why buildings have got so high and how we can fix ancient sewer systems. I’d also have liked to hear more about her experiences as a female engineer, which she very briefly mentions and then leaves aside. But then this would probably have dissatisfied other readers, so I see the dilemma – unlike writing on popular biology, for example, I feel like this material is either something you’ve learnt about or you haven’t – it seems unlikely that many readers will have built up much of a layman’s knowledge of the subject. Lots of interesting facts, then, but not a book that I think will stay with me.
Despite usually struggling to get on with YA (partly due to the fact that it often plays into stereotypes of what teenagers are supposed to like or be able to understand, hence: simplistic plotting and language, black-and-white morality, depth sacrified for pace), I’ve been storming my way through Becky Albertalli’s novels. All three can all basically be described as queer fiction set in US high schools, two in Atlanta, one in DC. While all of her books are pretty sweet, I noticed a definite uptick in the quality of her writing as I read forward. The Upside of Unrequited, her debut, stars Molly, a straight white teenager, despite clearly wanting to get deeper into questions of sexuality, gender and race, with prominent secondary lesbian, bisexual, gay and black characters, and brief mentions of trans men and asexuality. While I definitely welcome this diversity, The Upside of Unrequited feels both painfully earnest in its keeness to tick off different boxes, and shallow in its treatment of these minorities, because its choice of protagonist prevents it getting inside these stories. The main plot-line is also pretty conventional, with Molly worrying about getting a boyfriend and fearing growing apart from her twin sister Cassie.
To me, the ultimate takeaway from this was frankly, depressing, as both Molly and Cassie prioritise their romantic relationships over their bond as sisters, with the implication that they will inevitably grow further apart. The Upside of Unrequited doesn’t care about the sex of their partners but falls into the trap of promoting a still essentially heteronormative version of the life course, with marriage and the family still top of the agenda. Luckily, Albertalli’s other two novels are a lot more fun and less prescriptive: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda deals with Simon’s struggle to come out as gay, while Leah on the Offbeat stars bisexual Leah, who’s realising she may have a crush on one of her female friends. I was pleasantly surprised by the latter, especially, because Leah featured as a minor character in the Simon novel and I didn’t like her at all: I thought she was pointlessly sulky and judgmental. Leah on the Offbeat doesn’t soften Leah in the slightest, but it does a much better job of presenting a realistically flawed female character and making the reader understand her. Oh, and there’s a good dose of body positivity, as Leah is pretty OK with being fat AND is actually represented as fat on the cover (which I feel is unusual?). For me, it was the best of Albertalli’s novels to date, presenting much subtler characterisation without losing the upbeat tone that makes her books so adorable.