Review: The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss

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Rating – 3*

So, I actually read this book in October last year – it was one of the last books I read before I hit The Great Reading Slump of 2016. I thought it about time I reviewed it as I have decided to read the Wellcome Prize shortlist this year, and this is one that has made it. Naturally, this seemed like as good a time as any to finally write this review.

Most people who watch Booktube, or follow bookish blogs like myself, will have heard of this book. It’s been raved about – and for me that was a bit of a hindrance to it because it really set high expectations, which it didn’t quite live up to. However, reviewing this nearly 6 months after I read it has allowed me time to reflect back on it – and I realised that I can still remember it vividly, and that it has suck with me in that time.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Tidal Zone centres around Adam – a stay at home dad to two girls. The whole family is shook when for no apparent reason Miriam, his 15 year old daughter, collapses at school. The book follows the family coming to terms with this, learning to live with the not knowing and the overwhelming fear that plagues them daily. It discusses everything; teenagers, gender, sex, academia, marriage, family, the NHS but it also follows mundane, daily chores that Adam undertakes too.

It really is a remarkable book, and I’m glad that it’s been recognised on at least one shortlist this year. I gave it 3 stars when I read it, and I think reflecting on it I would still very much agree with that rating. But, reading this has prompted me to pick up more of Sarah Moss’ work – and in researching I’ve found she’s been shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize several times, which just makes me even more excited to read more from her!

Wellcome Prize 2017

Over the weekend I made what I would call a slightly bonkers decision – on flicking through the internet, trying to find what books to read next – I was looking at prize lists and finding no inspiration. Then I found a blog post somewhere which reminded me of the existence of the Wellcome Prize.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Wellcome Book Prize is an annual prize. Eligible books are those which have central themes of medicine, health, illness, or biosciences. Because of this broad criteria the lists of books nominated are from a number of genres – both fiction and non-fiction, but can span across any sub-genres of those.

The Wellcome website says this:

At some point, medicine touches all our lives. Books that find stories in those brushes with medicine are ones that add new meaning to what it means to be human. The subjects these books grapple with might include birth and beginnings, illness and loss, pain, memory, and identity. In keeping with its vision and goals, the Wellcome Book Prize aims to excite public interest and encourage debate around these topics.

Wellcome 2017

Wellcome Book Prize Shortlist 2017

The shortlist this year is a combination of books I have had on my radar, books I have already read, and books that having read the blurb I can’t wait to read. Needless to say I’m excited.

The winner will be announced on April 24th 2017 and I’m hoping to get through the 5 I haven’t read in that time. My review of The Tidal Zone – which I read last year but didn’t get around to reviewing – will be coming later this week.

If anyone has read any of the shortlist and wants to push me towards a particular book, I’m always open to suggestions, and I’m always happy to talk about books – and I really think these will all generate some discussion!

Review: Romola – George Eliot

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Rating – 3*

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know I adore George Eliot. This book, however, was a bit of a miss for me unfortunately.

Romola takes place in late 15th century Italy; Florence mainly. While Romola is the titular character of this book, as I have come to expect with Eliot’s work this book is much more of an ensemble piece and there’s so much more to it. Tito is, for me, definitely the main character – and an interesting, deep character he is! This book is an exploration of his character, how he descends in to morally ambiguous behaviour; Tito is truly one of the most well explored ‘villains’ in literature. Even though he was the bad guy, following his journey through this book to see him get to that point was complex, and on the whole enjoyable. I’m glad I read this book if only to ‘meet’ Tito.

On the other side of the coin we have Romola. Romola herself was disappointing for me, compared to Tito – who was portrayed in Technicolor –  she was very grey-scale.  I found myself getting frustrated; with characters like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss I knew that she was capable of creating a female protagonist who fights against societal norms. I thought, at points, we would see Romola rebel, but we didn’t. Instead she submits to Tito, endures his abhorrent behaviour. She feels like a caricature of Victorian virtue – and that frustrated me to no end. She didn’t feel fully formed, she felt very halfhearted and where there was a deep study of Tito, I don’t feel as a reader I ever got any insight in to Romola.

The scope of this novel is amazing, and the research that she must have put in to it is incredible. Italy came alive, and when reading this I did feel like it was a sunny afternoon on the continent. I felt like I was in 15th century Italy. And while this had all of the key things I adore about Eliot’s work; beautiful prose, locations that come alive, (on the whole) interesting characters, I felt a lot of it was lost on me. While I admire the amount of research that went in to this book, it often lost me or frustrated me. I can understand why she is thought to have said this was her best book, her favourite book – because it is incredible – but to enjoy it fully I think you have to be a 15th century scholar.

George Eliot is still my favourite 19th century female author. The woman can do no wrong in my eyes. However, this is definitely not a place to start with Victorian literature, George Eliot, or classics in general. It’s definitely a book which required patience, and a dedication that only someone who loves either the Victorian novel generally, or George Eliot more specifically, can get a modicum of enjoyment out of. That and maybe 15th century scholars.

So, yes, I liked this book. Not my favourite Eliot by far, but one I may revisit in the future!

Review: In Order to Live – Yeonmi Park

018 - In Order to LiveThis review is going to be short. I don’t think I can be coherent about this book in the slightest, and I definitely don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to express everything I felt while reading this book.

The subtitle of this book – A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom – sums it up.

Yeonmi is my age. 8 weeks older than me in fact. And her life, it’s not something I could even imagine. I’m by no means sheltered, I’m aware of the atrocities in this world, but the extremes that this woman has been through in her short life are just beyond my comprehension. My knowledge of North Korea is very limited, as is most peoples knowledge to be honest, but this insight has definitely made me want to research it further.

There aren’t really any words, as I said. This book had me in tears. It’s by no means an easy read, but it’s probably one that has changed my life in a way. I honestly believe this is a book that needs to be on the school curriculum. It’s not a difficult read in the literary sense, but the material in it is often quite difficult to comprehend and process.

I chose not to rate this book. Not because I was undecided, because it’s an incredible book. But to me, this book isn’t about stars/ratings – it’s about something so much bigger than that, and to rate it would be to trivialise what this book represents.

Read it. Listen to it. Tell other people to do the same. This is such an important book, and I can’t believe all what Yeonmi has been through in the same length of time on Earth as me. She’s an incredible young woman and one more people should know the name of.

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – J K Rowling

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Rating – 4*

When I saw they were re-releasing this, I knew I had to have it. When I found out that Eddie Redmayne was narrating the audiobook, I pre-ordered it (and also purchased the kindle edition because the cover on it was much nicer than the British hardback).

It’s always lovely to dip back in to the Potterverse, I love all of it. And Fantastic Beasts has stolen my heart. This didn’t disappoint me, it was exactly what I was hoping it to be. This book is just great fun – and the audiobook even more so.

The audiobook is just under 2 hours, and it’s fantastic. It’s a encyclopaedia of beasts found in the magical world, and is a textbook referred to in the Potter series. Obviously in this you read about beasts familiar to us from Potter, and general folklore, but also this covers off so many more – not just those explored in the Potter series, or indeed Fantastic Beasts (although, given it’s a series I’m really hoping they include some more of these in the future!) I really just loved how this ties in muggle stories, and has footnotes from Newt and gah, I just really loved this okay?! I know it’s not much more than a fictional encyclopaedia but it really was good fun – and Eddie Redmayne reading it just made it even more so!

Something which surprised me in this, and I found very nerdily exciting, is the introduction. In the introduction there is information on policy and politics behind the classification system of magical beasts which is used in the book (and wizarding world in general!) and for me that was really interesting. I love looking in to the wizarding world from that perspective and getting that insight in to the workings of the Ministry of Magic (and MACUSA).

This is definitely a book for a Potterhead, and I think it’s a fantastic companion to the movie – especially as they’ve revised it to tie in. Also, it’s worth noting that all proceeds from the book (physical, eBook and audio) are going to Comic Relief or Lumos, the charity JK Rowling set up herself. The original edition was written specifically for Comic Relief, and it’s really nice to see that even after all this time the proceeds are still going to a good cause. So if you were in doubt, it’s for charity, and that should sway you!

Review: Junk DNA – Nessa Carey

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Rating – 3*

I was missing science – having finished lectures nearly a year ago now I was hankering to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Genetics is something I didn’t study in depth during the course of my degree (I favoured more protein based science which did require basic knowledge of genetics but nothing which really complex) but it is something that I have always loved learning about. I previously read Nessa Carey’s Epigentics Revolution way back in 2012 before I even started my degree and when I saw she had another book out I had to get in there because I remember loving the way she explained things and learning a lot from what I was reading.

This book explains things well too. She uses analogies (which I am very appreciative of) and it makes the book much more approachable for the keen ‘amateur’ scientist – someone who has a GCSE in the subject and a keen interest. For me, it was a great refresher on some of the basics and a more focused look on the complexities and I really enjoyed it.

Ultimately, Junk DNA is nothing of the sort – about 98% of human DNA doesn’t code for proteins, and is therefore considered ‘not-necessary’, or junk. However, as research has progressed it’s become pretty clear that the non-coding, or junk, regions of DNA are actually crucial to the healthy function of cells. Alterations in these non-coding regions result in significant disabilities and can prove fatal.

There is a link back to her previous book on epigenetics also. Epigenetics is the modification of DNA which does not change the sequence of the genetic code – this is most commonly done by adding groups on to that well known structure of a double helix without changing any of the functionality of the DNA. In this book Carey links the importance of ‘junk’ DNA and epigenetics in linking the malfunctions and human diseases.

As someone who has a background in science, I enjoyed this but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. I think having really enjoyed her first book I had high hopes for this one, and while I did learn from it I found bits of it quite difficult to get through and, as such, it took me a month to read this end to end. Which, I do realise isn’t bad by any standards but it didn’t have me as gripped as Epigenetics Revolution did in the past.

If you have an interest in genetics, this is definitely worth considering as a book to pick up! If you don’t, then I’d advise you avoid this book.

Review: Moss Witch and Other Stories – Sara Maitland

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Rating – 3*

The premise of this short story collection is so, so up my alley. It’s honestly an incredible idea; it fuses fiction and science in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever found in another book. It’s a collection of short stories, each based around scientific fact and discovery – and each story has an afterword by a renowned academic in the field of science that the story focuses on. When I read the synopsis I knew I just had to have this book, I needed this book, and while it fell a little short of my high expectations I really did enjoy it.

As with most short story collections, this is very hit and miss. What surprised me most is the different narrative structures of each story. Some are very conversational such as The Geological History of Feminism which is a story of a young girl who goes to stay with her Aunt and gets an education on both geology and feminism (and has an absolutely fantastic title if I do say so myself). Another – How the Humans Learned to Speak – is very reminiscent of fables, and stories such as those written by Rudyard Kipling and explains in a very fun, if not simplistic way, how speech evolved in early hominids (pre-homo sapiens). The stories vary from the very realistic to full on not realistic; some are completely original whereas others are twists on myth and legend. It’s such a vast array of stories, and they all stand out completely independent of each other.

However, as much as I loved the structure and the science, sometimes it was a bit textbooky in the middle of a story and that ruined it a bit for me. The afterwords were great and such a novel idea, but when there’s quite a bit of wordy science in the middle of the story (even as a scientist) I found it a bit off-putting. Sometimes, the science seemed shoe-horned in and it was a bit difficult to get through – wading through treacle is a good analogy for some passages.

On the whole I did love this book. I loved the idea. I loved the structure. I loved that the stories were all so different from each other yet had that connecting theme of science. I generally loved how the science was incorporated in to the stories. But I only liked it overall – which is why it’s a 3* read.

I’d encourage anyone who is curious to pick this up. I do realise it’s probably not a book for everyone, but it’s something different and sometimes we need that in our reading lives!

Review: The Witchfinders Sister – Beth Underdown

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Rating – 4*

A little known fact about my reading tastes is that I love anything to do with Witch Trials. Naturally, when I saw this available on Audible I had to invest; not only was the narration good, but the story had me hooked in that 5 minutes I listened to. I don’t often read new releases impulsively, I can count on one hand the times I’ve picked a new release up without knowing anything about it. This was published on the 2nd of March – I picked it up on the 6th and threw myself at it like a thing possessed!

The Witchfinders Sister follows a young, recently widowed woman called Alice who has decided to return to her brother following her husbands death. Her brother, Matthew, is based on a historical figure who was a documented witchfinder in the 17th century. The plot of the story is loosely based around true events, all stemming from the life of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Seeing history through his sisters eyes, I feel, was a frankly genius way to look at it. Alice adds a layer of emotion, gives a personal connection to the situation around her, and throughout the book we flick back in time through her eyes as she tries to understand what made her brother the way he is – and it’s amazing.

I found this book absolutely engrossing. There were parts which were a bit slower than others but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The atmosphere in this book was fantastic, and the mystery and intrigue kept me guessing what was happening until the last page – which was very satisfying!

This is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I can’t wait for her future books because this was a very, very good debut and one. I loved the mix of historical fiction and, almost-but-not-quite, psychological thriller. I hope this isn’t the last of her, because frankly I want to see what else she can do.

Review: Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 3*

After Bleak House I decided I couldn’t wait any longer for another Dickens and this is the one which caught my eye. Dombey and Son was one of the first Penguin English Library editions I bought because look at it, it’s gorgeous and I’m a glutton for a pretty book. Sadly, after Bleak House, this fell a little flat for me.

It is over 1000 pages. This isn’t an issue normally, but the problem is that for me personally it could have been done in half that number. Initially I loved it, I got through the first couple of hundred pages in a few days and I was really enjoying it but then it just became more of a chore than anything. I kept going, because Dickens is like that and I was hoping so hard it would get better, but for me it didn’t. While the final chapter was somewhat redeeming, it wasn’t so mindblowing that it made this book better for me.

My main issue is that I didn’t feel much connection to the characters, which did make the story a little harder to invest myself in. Compared to Bleak House this just didn’t meet the mark on the plot or character front. Florence, while a wonderful protagonist, was too insipid and sickly sweet for my liking; Mr Dombey I just couldn’t get a handle on and struggled to understand. The background characters didn’t come to life quite like they have in a number of Dickens’ other books that I have read – even London wasn’t as vibrant in this book.

On the whole this was okay. Not the best Dickens book I have read, but by no means is it the worst (for it’ll be hard for any of Dickens’ books to be as ghastly as A Tale of Two Cities, and should one of his books surpass that feat it’ll be pretty awful indeed). I would say of his long books, this is my least favourite so far – Bleak House is by far a better place to go, or even The Old Curiosity Shop if you’re interested in picking up a monster of a book!

This time, however, I am not going to be put off from reading more. A Tale of Two Cities put me off Dickens for about 18 months and I’m not going to let this one get me down! If you have any recommendations of where to go next – I’m thinking Little Dorrit or David Copperfield maybe – let me know. I’d love to have input from people who have read more Dickens than me!