Review: Gene Machine – Venki Ramakrishnan

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006 - gene machine

★★★★★

At heart I’m a scientist and one of my favourite places in my local bookshops is the Popular Science section. I love browsing the shelves, trying to find new areas of science to read for pleasure, or just going back to my favourite area of science which is molecular biology and genetics. This book was one of the latter and sounded right up my street – especially the front cover which just made me nostalgic for my final year project at university in which I spent hours on hours making protein models like the one on the cover of this. While you may think this book is heavy science, don’t let the cover fool you, it’s actually a very approachable and easy to read book.

For the most part this book a memoir and we follow Ramakrishnan from his relatively humble beginnings in India, through his entire academic career which reached it’s peak in 2009 when he (along with two others) won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their research in to ribosomes. Ribosomes are a fascinating piece of molecular machinery and are responsible for the generation of proteins yet they themselves are constructed of protein subunits – they’re a chicken/egg situation on a microscopic scale. While we get quite a lot of his research in here, there is a lot of science, it’s approachable from a non-specialist perspective in my opinion. There were a lot of things in here I didn’t know in spite of my “specialist” area of study being in protein biophysics!

But Ramakrishnan as a person was fascinating too. His story resonated with me in a lot of ways, he started as a physicist but slowly became involved in answering one of the most complex biological conundrums since the DNA double helix. It was refreshing to see someone who has achieved so much greatness admitting that it’s okay to change direction and do something else, however far down a path you may seem to be. His personal life is interesting too, and while he doesn’t touch on much of his marriage or family, he constantly acknowledged how supportive his family had been through his career. What I enjoyed was him putting in to words his rivalries and friendships with other scientists, especially those he did go on to jointly win the Nobel with. He seems to be a very humble man, who is able to admit that at some points he let the potential go to his head.

I’ve followed the Wellcome Prize now for 2 years and will most certainly be doing it again this year, so when I find a book as fantastic as this before a longlist I’m giving myself a pat on the back. If this isn’t longlisted for the Wellcome Prize next month I’ll eat my bobble hat because this book was amazing. I’d even go as far as to say that I already want this on the shortlist without knowing whats on the longlist. This man has had an incredible life, and an incredible career. What he discovered was groundbreaking, and reading the journey to his Nobel was immersive. I felt his highs and his lows, I felt it when the pace picked up and the race to get the final structure was on. Ultimately, this is how you do science books and I for one cannot wait to see what it’s up against in the Wellcome (if it isn’t longlisted, I’ll be baffled).

Review: Heroes – Stephen Fry

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003 - heroes

★★★★

After listening to Mythos last year and really enjoying it I knew I had to have Heroes as soon as it was announced. It was one of the few audiobooks I preordered last year. So naturally it’s one of the first books I picked up in 2019 as I knew it was going to be good. I really wasn’t disappointed.

Heroes follows the everyday people of Greek mythology – not that the everyday people were ever less interesting. But rather than Gods themselves it’s their children, and demi-gods that this book focuses on. What I love about Greek myth, and especially how Stephen Fry has reworked them, is how much they all interlink in to each other. It’s often hard to tell where one narrative ends and the next begins because the transition happens so seamlessly.

There are so many myths that are familiar in here; the labours of Hercules/Heracles, Theseus and the Minotaur and the story of Oedipus to name but a few. The way Stephen Fry has reworked these and put an almost modern narrative on top of them is really a joy to read (or rather listen to in my case!) I also appreciated how interspersed throughout the stories are little bits of fact which explain discrepancies in the story through time and geography. I believe in the print version these are footnotes, but in the audio version it’s just like listening to him going off on a tangent of “oh but did you know this…” and it was great!

I think it’s also worth saying that the audiobook for this (and also Mythos) is incredible and one I would very highly recommend. Stephen is one of those people who it is so easy to listen to, and there is one bit which was just made magic for me simply because it was an audiobook I was listening to. Were it a print copy I’m sure it would be entertaining, but hearing Stephen Fry once again say “Yer a wizard, ‘Arry” in Hagrid’s voice in the middle of a very-important-factual-footnote-bit of the book while explaining the tragic orphan trope in fiction and it’s origins in myth just made me laugh. It’s worth it just for that.

So, for anyone interested in ancient myth I think this is a great place to go to. Stephen Fry is a brilliant storyteller, and much like with Mythos this was a joy to listen to. I enjoyed it just as much as it’s predecessor, and rumour has it that he’s going to be tackling another piece of myth or history in the future to add to the series. I for one can’t wait.

Review: One Hundred Shadows – Hwang Jungeun

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004 - one hundred shadows

★★

This book first came on to my radar around 18 months ago, and was the book that introduced me to Tilted Axis Press – a publishing house, founded by Deborah Smith who rose to notoriety translating Han Kang’s works (which went on to win prize after prize). Tilted Axis focus on translated works, especially those which otherwise may not have otherwise made it to the English market. While I’ve now read a handful of books from Tilted Axis, I’d yet to read the one which brought the publisher to my attention and once again in the mood to read a book in one sitting this little 150 page book was top of the pile.

Describing this story is difficult because, honestly, I don’t really know what went on in it. The story takes place in a run down area of Seoul and follows two young people; Eungyo and Mujae. They both work in shops in the district which are at risk of being shut down as the area is described as ‘a slum’. These two characters bond over their mutual situation, and their relationship develops over the course of the 150 pages. There is also the aspect of Shadows and their power over an individual – I wish there was more focus on this aspect of the book because I think if this had gone further in to magical realism I would have enjoyed it a lot more. A lot is left to the imagination and I did feel that my brain was constantly playing catch up to try and pick up threads.

The description of the book is “off beat” but I don’t quite think that covers the confusion I felt. Rather than off beat I think it was completely lost. The writing (and the translation) were beautiful but the actual plot left me confused and a little cold. I didn’t feel any particular connection to the characters, and while I read it in one sitting I did find myself distracted easily and never completely immersed.

The author has another book which has recently been published by Tilted Axis, and I will check that out because I did like the style of writing. I hate to judge an author on one book (unless the book is actually awful, which this wasn’t, it just wasn’t entirely my cup of tea and that’s fine).

Ultimately this was a 2 star read for me – I liked it, but it isn’t a book which blew me away, nor is it one I think will stay with me in any way long term. But it’s an author I’m interested by, and I do intend to look at buying her other book in English.

Review: Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

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★★★★★

I went in to my local Waterstones looking for a book I could read in one sitting – I really wanted a book I could just binge. I will confess I didn’t actually look at this book myself, it was my sister who picked it up and said “this seems to be your level of weird” that ended up winning me over. Let me say now, she’s good at picking books.

Convenience Store Woman follows Keiko Furukura – a woman in her mid-30s who has worked part time in a convenience store for the last 18 years, much to the dismay of her family and few friends. We find out very early on in the book that Keiko has never been a “normal” woman by societies standards; she’s practical, needs routine, and takes social cues and conversational tactics from other people around her. As a child we see her getting told off for her way of doing things, and her natural response was to silence herself and observe, acting through imitation of her peers and putting on a facade of normality to please her family. As a 36 year old woman in her society, it’s expected of her at this point of her life to be married, have children, have a full time job – or at least actively be searching for them – but that’s not what Keiko wants. All Keiko wants is a quiet life, she’s happy being her and she doesn’t want to change for anyone; not her family, not her friends. She wants to exist in her bubble of routine.

In an effort to appease her friends and family, both of which she has been lying to in order to get them off of her back, she ends up in a very bizarre situation with an ex-coworker who is absolutely infuriating, but similar to her in a number of ways. Where she finds comfort and purpose working at the shop, he doesn’t want to conform to society and lashes out. But Keiko, being her wonderful self, sees it almost as an experiment and reacts in the most incredible ways.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, because at just over 150 pages, I don’t want to ruin this for anyone who wants to read it.

My first impressions of Keiko as a character were that it was an almost perfect representation of someone who is both on the autism spectrum and is completely asexual – something you don’t get a lot of in fiction, especially from a female protagonist. Her understanding of humans and relationships, how she mimics people in social situations to appear “normal”, her need of routine and guidance and rules. I loved her as a character, and I identified with her enormously. I honestly could have read 200 pages more of her day-to-day in the convenience store because she’s just so wonderful.

So, it was very easy for me to give this book 5 stars, if only because Keiko was a joy to have in my life for a couple of hours while I read this. If you want a good representation of female autism in fiction, I’d highly recommend this!

Review: Evolutions – Oren Harman

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001 - evolutions

★★★

This is the first book I’ve read in what feels like an age and I’m very much out of practice writing reviews, so let’s give this a go, shall we?

I’ve been in the mood to read non-fiction lately, and this was by far and away not what I was expecting when I picked it up. The way this book is written is far more poetic and ‘flowery’ than I was anticipating from a book in the popular science section of my local Waterstones to be.

I thought this book was going to be something that combined theology, mythology and evolution in a factual way – explained the origins of myths from a scientific point of view and instead it was a book which gave a personality to the universe. It could easily be in the fiction section of a book shop because it reads like flash fiction, just drawing inspiration on science and nature and, honestly, parts of it are breathtaking. As a scientist, however lapsed I am, it’s a very surreal experience to read the hard facts in and amongst such literary language.

While I loved how this book was written, and I shouldn’t judge a book based on what I was expecting. I think for someone maybe dabbling in popular science, this could be a good stepping stone between fact and fiction. For me the best part of the book wasn’t his wax poetic about the universe, but the essay section at the end. While it felt like an abrupt change in pace, it actually gave analysis to the first two thirds and provided references both for and against the mythology that was drawn. That’s what I wanted when I picked it up.

It also is worth saying that this is very binary in representation of gender and sexuality, which does grind my gears. Even when talking about asexual entities he was assigning gender to them and completely ignoring non-binary sex/gender (which is not just some modern development, it exists in history as long as life has been evolving).

Overall, a solid 3 stars, not sure it’ll be one I read again though – and I’d wait for the paperback, frankly.

Blog:- Hello 2019| General Update & Bookish Goals

Blog 001

Hello and welcome to a new look on Ashleigh’s Bookshelf. After a rather long hiatus, I decided the best way to get back to blogging, and excited about it, was to give the blog itself a bit of a facelift. So, here we have it. It’s purple and inspired by my tattoos in that it’s watercolour-y in theme and I hope you like it! It’s still in progress, and if you have any suggestions or feedback just drop me a message.

The reason there weren’t any posts for the last 3 or 4 months of 2018 is simple – I wasn’t reading. After a few really good months over the Summer my reading motivation just slumped, my reading consisted of Harry Potter fan fiction and I’m not ashamed in the slightest. I bought a PS4 and have rediscovered a love of gaming (Tomb Raider mainly). I’ve been watching movies, drinking wine and making memories with friends. For me, the last few months of 2018 were some of the happiest I’ve had, and before I knew it it’d been 3 months and I hadn’t picked up a book.

Looking back on my reading in 2018 one of the things which I found most rewarding was reading the Wellcome prize longlist – something I hope to do again this year. The longlist is released next month and I actually can’t wait! I’m going to be more about balance this year, as I feel that it’s something I almost conquered towards the end of 2018 and that I want to carry forward. I’ve decided to be less about quantity of books and more about quality and the value they add to my life, so my goals for this year are:-

  • Read one book a week
  • Read more non-fiction
  • If you don’t like it, DNF it.

And reading is going to naturally take a backseat when I’m focusing my time on other things too. For a long while all of my free time was used reading, but I’m enjoying having that variety in my free time and it means I’m enjoying and appreciating things more!

As for the blog – reviews will happen when books are read, I may also do monthly updates again- games I’m playing and movies I’ve watched as well as books.

But for now, I will say goodbye and we shall speak soon!

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The Briefest of Updates

Hello! Long time no speak.

I always seem to make one of these posts at this time of year. When other people’s reading picks up towards the winter, with cozy blankets and hot drinks, mine always drops out. Well, it doesn’t drop off completely but I tend to go through a phase of reading fan fiction and I have zero regrets.

I also may have bought myself a PS4 and I may have been obsessively playing Tomb Raider for the best part of two months.

Anyway, I have purchased a few books lately which I’m excited to get around to so hopefully you’ll be hearing from me again in the new year!

I hope you’re having a lovely Saturday and your festive season is filled with happiness whatever and however you celebrate.

Review: Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor

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061 - Lagoon

Rating – 2*

 Lagoon is a book I absolutely picked up on a whim. I was in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of my local bookshop, looking for something out of my usual comfort zone, and stumbled upon this. I’ve heard a lot of incredible things about Nnedi Okorafor (particularly her Binti series) and was interested to see that she’s actually a very, very prolific author!

I’m relatively new to the Sci-Fi genre in fiction – so I can’t really place this anywhere in particular on a scale. But I really enjoyed a lot of it – it’s a first contact story, but not little green men from mars like you probably think of when you hear Sci-Fi. The invasion of Nigeria comes from the seas, not the skies, which is what drew me to the book in the first place.  I love the idea of creatures from the deep coming to the surface!

The book also draws a lot of inspiration from a lot of Nigerian folklore and fairy tales, and I really enjoyed how they were blended in with the science fiction elements. I also felt that more than anything this was a book that looked at the humanity of a small population, and how something so big (such as an alien invasion) divides them and unites them simultaneously. While there are three main characters, there are also view points from several smaller characters – which are interesting but made the book feel crowded in my mind.

While I enjoyed the first half, I felt the second half lost a bit of momentum, and lost my interest. The ending was okay, it all came together nicely but I feel like it could have ended half way through and had the same impact on me. I gave this two stars, maybe because I didn’t fully understand it at the time of reading. In parts it felt cramped and overworked, in other places it was sparse and not thought out enough. It felt quite meh come the end, and I don’t feel that much was resolved.

What I will say though is that I did enjoy the writing though, so I think I’ll be picking up more Okorafor in the future.

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

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060 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Rating – 5*

I was in the mood for a classic, but rather than pick one of the many on my shelves I haven’t read, I reached for one of my all time favourites – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne is by far my favourite Brontë because of this book. And I honestly urge anyone to pick this up.

While this story opens with a letter written by Gilbert Markham, and is bookended with one at the end too, this is ultimately Helen’s story. It’s told through letters and diaries, which is something I find hard to get through when not in the right hands. Epistolary writing is incredible for just really getting in to a characters head, understanding their thoughts and feelings, and when done well it can be absolutely amazing.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a rare gem in classic fiction in that it deals with very complex issues and has very few tropes of 19th century literature with a female protagonist. Helen Graham is one of the strongest women I’ve ever come across in fiction, and Anne Brontë is an incredible author who was ahead of her time for writing her. What we experience through Helen’s diaries in this book is a story I’ve still to this day never seen handled as well as this, especially for the time period in which this was written (and set). The most incredible thing about Helen is that while she’s been through hell and back, and has experienced abuse that no woman should ever experience, she keeps her head high and is so poised throughout; she retains her dignity which is something I never thought I would say about a 19th century female protagonist!

What makes this novel so incredible is how real the depiction of alcoholism is, and how it impacts a family. This is, I know, the most autobiographical of any Brontë novel as I believe that Helen’s husband is based on the only Brontë brother, Branwell. It also depicts a rarity of a woman living independently, causing scandal, living under a pseudonym and not doing her husbands bidding. The different take on women in Anne’s world to Charlotte and Emily’s is, frankly, astounding. This book caused a rift between the women, and after Anne’s death, Charlotte took the executive decision to suppress this book and disallow a reprint to “protect” the family name as Anne didn’t hold the same, more pious, opinions as her sisters.

I originally read this book in 2014 – and it holds a very special place in my heart because it was the book I read on my last holiday with my grandmother before she died only a few months later. We read it together, and for that I think I will always love this book a little bit more than all other Brontë novels. If anything I loved it more on a second read, I really did. And if you’re to read one classic this year, or ever, I’d urge it to be this one because it truly is incredible.

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman – Theodora Goss

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059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

Rating – 4*

After reading the first book in this series and loving it, I had to immediately pick up the second in the series. Now, I’ll admit I was a little intimidated when I saw the size of this (700 and something pages!) but I somehow read this book in 2 or 3 sittings. I just couldn’t put this down.

Just to apologise in advance, this may contain spoilers for the first book, even though I am trying my best to make it spoiler free!

This book picks up where the previous left off, the characters are just as wonderful – if not more so – than they were in the first book. All of the female characters develop more, and we are introduced to a few more amazing women including Lucinda van Helsing, Carmilla, and an interesting woman in power – Aisha. We also get to meet Count Dracula and Mina Harker, which is always a bonus! My love of Dracula made me love this book all the more. The inclusion of Carmilla, and her female lover, made me very happy. Even though this is set in the 1890s every character that met them both just accepted it, maybe it’s just their nature as they themselves aren’t exactly your stereotypical citizen of the world, but it was just really refreshing! Dare I say that I loved Carmilla in this more than I loved Carmilla?

The initial premise of this is that Lucinda van Helsing needs rescued, and much like with all of the girls in the Athena Club did at one point in the first book. Something weird is happening to Lucinda, and they need to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. This journey takes them across Europe and out of the London that we became familiar with in the first book. And while there is a more in depth plot to this book than the first, it’s the characters that give the book momentum to move forward. The women in this are all incredible, and it’s why I loved the first book so much, and while I loved the plot it was them that made it all the better. We also get a more in depth look at their lives before they were all together, in freak shows and circuses, and all the colourful characters they knew (and new friends too!) Much like with the first book, their main motivation is understanding why their fathers created them all; it’s just taken to a new, more international, level in this.

Much like with the first book there is a strong female empowerment message, even in the characters from a different generation have the same view, mainly through the persuasion and influence from the younger girls! The women are so varied in their characteristics, and skills and it’s just so, so wonderful to see such a mish-mash of characters as friends. It makes me very happy.

Needless to say this has very easily become one of my favourite book series. I really can’t wait for the third and final book to tie all the loose ends in this up. I just can’t express how much I love this series, and a third book is going to be bittersweet when it’s finally released because I don’t want this series to end, but equally I can’t see where it goes. I think it’s safe to say I’d highly recommend this!