Review: No Surrender- Constance Maud

13 - No Surrender

Rating – 3*

No Surrender is a very rare find – an out and out suffragette novel. It is billed on the Persephone catalogue as just that, which doesn’t seem something outstanding but really, there aren’t any suffragette novels so this one is something special.

This book is something remarkable. It is a multi-faceted look at the suffragette movement of the early 20th century; from the mill workers to the upper levels of society. It looks at how the movement impacted on them and why they were passionate about it. It wasn’t just about gaining a vote as many people think, it was so much more than that and sadly so much more still needs to be done.

The primary character is Jenny, a young mill worker who wants so much and not just for herself, very little of it is for herself, but it is for the people she loves. She wants her sister to have rights to her children, her mother to have right to finances, and she wants equal pay for equal work. When Jenny meets Mary, a young, upper class girl, their joint skill-set proves powerful. Their different perspectives represent the cross section of women who fought for this change to the lives of women and children.

There is no doubting it, this book is powerful. It really brings home how determined and passionate these women were. Some of the passages in this book, particularly when the girls are subject to force feeding, are hard reading. But however uncomfortable it was, I kept reading because the fictional women in this book give voice to the hundreds of nameless women who fought for the freedoms that we, as women, have today. Sadly, there is a lot that needs to still be done even 100+ years on for equality, in both Britain and across the rest of the world. But this book really brings it home how lucky women today are.

However, this book wasn’t without flaws and while it really made me think I didn’t particularly enjoy the writing. I found it clunky, I found it hard to get through, when I put the book down I had to force myself to pick it up again. I am so glad I read this and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to read a brutal, albeit fictional, account of the early Suffrage movement in the UK. But it has to be 3* as I didn’t enjoy the writing all that much.

Buy this Book

Review: Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World – Rachel Swaby

14 - Headstrong 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World

Rating – 5*

I saw this book pop up in a magazine (Royal Society of Chemistry magazine) quite a while ago, since then it was on my radar. I knew it was a book that I wanted to, an needed to, own. Eventually, I decided enough was enough and it was about time to pick it up, I just waited until the right point to read it. A point when I needed motivation, inspiration, I needed to remind myself why I do what I do and this book, oh this book did just that. This book is amazing. These women, all 52 of them, were incredible. They make me proud to be a scientist, to follow the path that they essentially paved for me and my female friends to be able to do what we do! They gave us access. Every single woman featured in this book is a superhero and I wouldn’t be doing what I do without them.

This book was born from the author reading an obituary in the newspaper. Yvonne Brill made a “mean beef stroganoff”, she was a wife, a mother and there was over half a page of column dedicated to her. Why? She was an incredible rocket scientist. A rocket scientist who developed technology still used by NASA today (hydrazine jet propulsion if anyone cares!). And all the New York Times cared about was her “mean beef stroganoff”, that was more important than the work she did for over 50 years. After reading this, Rachel Swaby decided enough was enough and it was about time people heard about the amazing women who have changed science (and coincidentally, the world) but are little heard about, some even forgotten entirely from scientific circles (never mind the general public!).

There are women in medicine, biological sciences, environmental sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, and mathematics who have been overwritten in history. Some names remain, most people know who Marie Curie was, but her daughter Irene was equally as incredible and also won a Nobel prize to go with her mothers two. Many people have heard of Ada Lovelace and Florence Nightingale. But there are so many more amazing women out there; Rosalind Franklin identified the signature double helix of DNA. Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission. Dorothy Hodgkin discovered the structure of Vitamin B12. Inge Lehmann discovered the inner core of the Earth. Virginia Apgar developed the APGAR test which has saved countless of newborn babies. Helen Taussig revolutionised heart surgery. Alice Ball was a black woman in her twenties who treated leprosy. All of these women are incredible, inspiring too. And while they only get three or four pages each, their intelligence and determination comes across so clearly. I wish, oh I wish, I could have some of these women round for dinner and just thank them, talk to them, have some of their insight because they’re incredible.

These women inspire me. Everyone should know about these women. This book is something special, it has it’s faults, the writing is a bit questionable, and jumbled, at times but the reasoning behind this book and the overall presentation is faultless. I would love more on each of these women, but the idea of reading about one woman a week for a year that is put forward in the introduction I think is great for the non-specialist or the person who just wants to read about an awesome woman once a week! I devoured it in under a week, I read a couple of sections a day (the book is split in to seven scientific disciplines).

This is by no means a book for scientists only. This is a book that, I feel, could benefit anyone. If I had known about these women earlier on in my life it would have probably sparked my interest in science sooner! 

Naturally, this is a book about science and women and it is awesome. It was a 5* book before I opened it, if I’m entirely honest. How could it be anything else?

Review: Animal Farm – George Orwell

12 - Animal Farm

Rating – 4*

I finally got around to reading Animal Farm and my primary feeling is “why did it take me so long?”. Animal Farm is actually my sisters favourite book, she read it during her GCSEs. She told me, at the age of 14, that I had to read this book. She’s 20 in a couple of months and I have only just got around to this!

This book is so simple but it conveys such an important message, it’s brilliant. It is presented as a fairy story, though it is more of an elongated fable, it has the simple language of a children’s book but depth of meaning that I’ve not experienced before. Exploring communist Russia through the eyes of animals, well, it was genius. But the moral of this book still exists today, it’s just as relevant to read now as it was when it was first published in 1945.

All of the animals on this farm had human counterparts. The pigs were the government (in the metaphor of Russia they were Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky etc.), the horses were the hard-working members of society who believed in the government, the dogs were (essentially) the KGB. The revolution becomes much less idyllic with the pigs ruling the roost; changing laws put out at the start to suit their pleasure, by the end of the book “All animals are equal” becomes “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I think it is fair to say that this is the best novella I have ever read. At just 120 pages I was blown away. This covered so much ground and really made such a big societal event manageable. I can see why this book is on reading lists for pre-16 education. What Orwell achieved in this book is mindblowing. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s a book I would definitely love to reread, so I gave it 4* but I’m still teetering on whether or not to bump it to 5*. I wish I had read this before I read 1984!

Review: Stardust – Neil Gaiman

11 - stardust

Rating – 3*

This book was a really enjoyable couple of hours of listening to Neil Gaiman read to me. I love any of Gaiman’s audiobooks as he generally narrates them himself which just adds a much greater depth to the story, in my opinion. A quick sidenote, if you’re unsure as to whether audiobooks are for you seriously check out some of Gaiman’s work as not only are the stories amazing, but it’s a perfect way to slip in to audiobooks.

That note aside, this book was good. I enjoyed it, it was easy to listen to but it felt a little flat for me. I loved the idea of this, a boy goes on a quest to capture a fallen star. The issue with that is he does it to win the heart of a girl he’s in love with, or just get a kiss for her, that didn’t sit particularly well for me, it didn’t address the fact he was being predatory instead shrugged it off with the attitude of “boys will be boys”. Yes it’s a fairy tale, yes it’s short, yes there was a lot overlooked and missed out but I don’t think that really excuses the fact that it really objectifies women. The premise of it being a fairy tale for adults I also loved. It’s just it fell quite short of the mark for my personal tastes; adult equalled random sex and some violence which, in and amongst the childish narrative, felt quite out of place.

So, on the whole this was a good book. I enjoyed listening to it. I just didn’t love it like I was expecting to. I gave this book 3*

Review: Reasons to Stay Alive – Matt Haig

10 - Reasons to Stay Alive

Rating – 4*

This book struck a very deep chord with me – I have suffered with depression and I acknowledge that it is something that is deep rooted within me and will always be there. This book is the first that has talked about it and made sense to me. I wish I had had this book when I was at my darkest points because it is brutally honest, it feels real and it doesn’t sugar coat it.

Because it hit me so hard, it’s a very difficult book to review. It’s part memoir, part self help and I felt like it was my story, in a way.

Quite simply, I think this book should be read by anyone. If you have suffered from depression and/or anxiety, or know someone who has, this book is a must read. If you know someone who has someone in their life who is suffering from depression/anxiety, it’s a must read. It is the most accurate written description of the feelings that I, and many others, have felt when going through this dark period and I genuinely feel it could help so many people. I don’t think there is anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading this book.

Matt Haig writes beautifully. I really want to try his fiction out because, even talking about something so difficult and dark, there were so many passages in this book which were beautiful. There was a ray of light in the darkness of his words and I just really clicked with his style of writing.

Now, I gave this 4* on Goodreads. It’s closer to a 4.5 but there are just some things that knock it down from being perfect for me. While lists are easy to engage with, and something I enjoy working with myself, I found a page filled with a list becoming just a tad annoying, I found it was too brief for me and I wanted more (however, I respect that short and sharp is probably easier to relate to). I loved this book, I have already recommended this book to someone. But it just lacked a little something for me to be able to give this 5*, unfortunately!

Review: Daniel Deronda – George Eliot

09 - Daniel Deronda

Rating – 5*

This is the best book I’ve read so far this year. After I read Middlemarch last year, I was disappointed. It wasn’t what I was expecting, I was truly expecting to adore that book and instead it was just okay. But, I kept going with her work and every book I read by this woman just gets better and better. This one I could scarcely put down – I finished the 914 page beast in 5 days and that was me pacing myself!

Daniel Deronda tells a story in two parts, both the story of Daniel and of Gwendolen, and naturally they interweave beautifully. We start in what is almost the middle of the book, where we meet Gwendolen Harleth in a casino. Observing her winning streak at the roulette table is Daniel Deronda. And that is the last we see of him until Chapter 16 and Gwendolen’s story takes precedence. At first it seems like these two narratives are utterly unrelated. Yet each is enhanced by the other, and by the parallels it is possible to draw between them.

The plot itself is magnificent, it weaves in and out, back and forth, and is so incredibly perfect. I could go on and on about it, it was great.  The thing which surprised me most was the thread of Judaism which I really wasn’t expecting, but it surprised me in the best possible way. Mirah is one of the most beautiful characters I have had the pleasure of reading, yes she was a little stereotypical but she was wonderful and I really, really adored her. Daniel, oh how I wish there were more of Daniel! Though he is the titular character, the main thread of this novel I felt was actually handed to Gwendolen – his story just wove in perfectly with hers. Him finding out his origins was a great plot point but the thing that was most interesting about him was his open-mindedness, his acceptance and kind heart; he too had faults but his good traits outweighed them. Gwendolen however did annoy me, she was selfish, rude, and downright abhorrent in fact; but I loved her. The growth of her through the novel was something special, her tenacity, her zest for life, and ultimately her journey in to an adulthood that noone deserves which she took for the better of her family is one filled with pain. She grows up quickly, learns quickly and as she becomes more downtrodden, her voice in the novel becomes quieter… it’s quite fantastic, actually.

Oh this novel was incredible. George Eliot is up there as one of my favourite authors, and because I loved this so much I really want to retry Middlemarch. Her writing is sheer magic, her command of imagery and characterisation is second to none, her ability to create the perfect atmosphere for village life astounds me. This woman is a deity.

Naturally this book got 5* from me and the title of best book in 2016 so far. The rest of the year has a LOT to live up to!

Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Mary Wollstonecraft

08 - A Vindication of the RIghts of Women

Rating – 4*

Published in 1792 this book is worryingly still relevant. Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of the also incredible Mary Shelley, was very much before her time. This is considered to be the classic feminist text and I am so, so glad I finally got around to it.

At it’s core this is a criticism of discussion which was happening in the late 18th century (for much before and after, in all honesty) about what a woman’s place was in the world. Wollstonecraf is clear, concise, and passionate about the equality of the sexes in this book. Her main criticism is that sexism, the division between the sexes at least, begins from a very young age. At the point this was written it was still not common practice to send a daughter to school, instead teach her home crafts so she will make a good marriage material so, in the latter part of the book she puts forward the absolutely scandalous notion of both male and female children being schooled together to a certain level.

One of the biggest arguments put forward by her was that women are groomed to appeal to men; they aren’t allowed their freedom of choice, from a young age all they are expected to do is to become a wife, a good marriage is after all good for her and the best she can hope for in life. Women are expected to be mindless creatures who have the sole purpose of satisfying men, catering to their every need and whim. If a woman does not have looks or money she is not worthy. It’s disturbing that a lot of it is still highly relevant today. Popular culture still perpetrates the idea what women need to be ‘beautiful’ above all else, that being well dressed and sexually appealing to men is the biggest success a woman can hope for. It’s just heartbreaking that, ultimately, this is still an issue nearly 225 years later!

I downloaded this from Audible, narrated by the wonderful Fiona Shaw and it was fantastic; I’d highly recommend the audiobook to anyone who maybe finds a physical non-fiction book a bit too heavy going! Fiona has a great tone and it was actually a really soothing read, however passionate she got!

I happily gave this 4* and it is definitely one I’d like to read again!

Review: Villette – Charlotte Bronte

07a - Villette

Rating – 3*

This book was great, but not perfect. Villette is a semi-autobiographical novel of Charlotte’s life, of her time working in Brussels, which may explain why it was so detailed. Compared to Jane Eyre this is darker, it’s a lot more grown up, the language is beautiful, but I hesitate to compare the two to the extent saying which was the better book. This book is a lot more mature, as I said, but if Jane Eyre is the story of true love, hope and positivity then this is the complete antithesis of that; it’s about a woman who has been disappointed, lost everything dear and has given up hoping and dreaming.

Villette follows the story of Lucy Snowe, an orphan with absolutely no family. It starts when she is around 14 and living with her godmother, Mrs Bretton. Eventually she ends up moving to Villette, a little village in France, wherein she ends up teaching English in a school. The majority of the book has very little to no clear plot, maybe it is because it was more autobiographical therefore that was the plot. It has to be said that it isn’t nearly as exciting or dramatic as I remember Jane Eyre being, but as can be expected from a Bronte, the prose and characters are exquisite.

Lucy Snowe is one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve come across, especially compared to Jane. She holds information back from the reader, never quite telling you everything. She is difficult to like and relate to but, somehow, I did find myself liking her come the end. For the first part of the book, she is a secondary character in her own story. She narrates her experiences as a child in her godmother’s home and tells the stories of Polly and Graham when they were children. While she is telling the story, we learn very little about her and this is somewhat true of most of the book, and even though the tone of the novel is mostly hopeful, there is always an underlying feeling of sadness and loneliness in Lucy’s narrative. Ultimately, Lucy is a proud woman who desires to make her own way in the world and I respected that.

On the whole, and thinking about it over night, I really loved this book. The ending was a bit of a shocker but I understand why it was written in such an ambiguous way. Initially I gave this 3*, mulling it over I think maybe 4* – it’s definitely a 3.5* at the very least! I did enjoy this but, have to say it, Anne is still my favourite Bronte!

Review: Les Misérables – Victor Hugo

06 - Les Misérables

Rating – 4*

This book was a beast which took me the entirety of the month to get through but it was oh-so-worth it. I listened to this primarily as, once again, my physical and audio versions were different translations; the Penguin edition is Norman Denny and the Naxos audio translation is Isabel F. Hapgood. As a result, I generally stuck to the audio version because flip-flopping between the two translations was quite confusing! Also, it is worth saying that I went in to this book knowing practically nothing. I haven’t seen any adaptation of it as I always knew I wanted to read the book first. This book is incredible and trying to condense all my feeling in to a concise review has been a challenge!

Everything in this book was incredible. The plot was enormous and spanned so many things, but more than anything this was a character study. This was definitely more character driven than plot driven and I loved that! The characters were so rounded and real, their struggles felt believable, I believed in this people and even the characters I hated were equally as fascinating. Jean Valjean, really being the main character, is the one I felt most invested in and his story, this book, really did wrench my heart at times. The first part of this book, with Fantine, had me in tears at more than one point! His struggles over the course of the novel, the two sides of him conflicting, is a really interesting read and one I am so, so glad I finally got around to.

In the end I rated this book 4 stars. I’ve read some long books in my time, most of them are incredible. They’ve stood the test of time for a reason. This book was one of them but… I wasn’t compelled to keep picking this up. If I didn’t pick it up for 2 or 3 days I didn’t feel I missed it. Don’t misunderstand me, when I was reading this book I didn’t want to put it down but I also didn’t have the desire to keep picking it up (as I did with The Count of Monte Cristo). A big book is a commitment and it has to have the momentum to keep you going and, this didn’t really. My main issues with this book were that I found myself lost at times as Hugo does like to go off on extreme tangents which last a considerable amount of time. It’s that reason why I found myself not really engaging 100% with it while I was reading it. Some of these tangents were really interesting, I really enjoyed some of them but I think I would, and could, have got just as much out of an abridged version and I really hate myself for thinking that! This book is as much about French history and philosophy as it is about Jean Valjean and some of that was very much appreciated!

If you love a big book, if you want to make a commitment for an indeterminate period of time, I do recommend this book. However, if you want a more fast paced French epic, definitely pick The Count of Monte Cristo up over this. Maybe this is one where familiarity would be a good thing and having seen the musical or the movie would have been of benefit, who knows? All I know is I enjoyed it and I am most certainly a convert to French classic literature!

To a February Flop and a Hopeful March

Also known as my wrap up and TBR.

Yes, February was a bit of a flop on the reading front in that I only managed one book. But that one book, which I DID finish in the end, was Les Misérables and I am so, so glad I finally read that! So I read a total of 1232 pages – which equated to 67 hours and several minutes of an audiobook and I will have a review up soon for that. Just with a long book, I want to do it justice. I’m over the disappointment of reading only one book because the book I did read was great, and so worth the hours put in to reading it! I also managed a couple of short stories from That Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche which I will be reading sporadically throughout March I think as I find I can’t really sink my teeth in to her work and the occasional story works a lot better!

In March I have 3 essays and my dissertation to finish. And I need to start revision for my exams. Final year has gone far too quickly for my liking! Hopefully though I will be getting a lot more reading done than I did this month, purely because I think I’m going to need a break. While I have a few books in mind for March, I think I’m going to leave it open and just enjoy reading for a little while and pick up what the mood dictates!

I’d love to hear what you’ve got on your TBR and intend to get to in the near future, if only for inspiration!