Review: Plot 29 – Allan Jenkins

027 - Plot 29

027 - Plot 29

Rating – 2*

I am getting so close to finishing the longlist of the Wellcome prize now (as I write this it is the 15th of March and I have 5 days before the shortlist is announced and 2 books to finish!).

Plot 29 is a book which I found quite confusing. I think as a memoir around fostering, childhood neglect, and the struggle of finding a biological family it would be good, and as a book about keeping an allotment it would be good, however the combination of the two I found rather bizarre if I am entirely honest and something that as I reader I didn’t enjoy all that much. As with another memoir on the list I really struggled to find how this is relevant to bioscience or health – the link is just too tenuous for me (especially as I believe it was put on the list because of the mental health aspect of the piece, which I didn’t even pick up on!) So, for me this wasn’t really something I would have continued reading if it wasn’t for me wanting to read the entire longlist cover to cover!

The book essentially revolves around a year on an allotment in London – Plot 29 – which Jenkins is caring for. The book is based around this plot, and the year in a life of it. But that’s where the logic to the chronology ends. Within chapters there is so much jumping about, one moment we’re in 2016/17 and the next we’re in another decade – even the flashbacks and fragments of the past aren’t in any sort of order. This for me made even the major personal events in the book really anticlimactic and dull. And they shouldn’t have been, as I said initially if this book focused solely on his experience as a foster child, finding biological relatives, and also followed a logical chronology I think it could have been a really powerful piece of writing.

Unfortunately this book wasn’t for me – I feel a bit like it was mis-sold if I’m entirely honest. I appreciate this is someone’s life, and I am not in any way saying that it wasn’t moving but I found that as a book the way it was positioned felt a bit cramped. I find it interesting that it was originally to be a book about gardening and a year in an allotment with a little bit of personal stuff thrown in, but over time it grew in to what it became. I know a lot of people who have loved this book, and will love this book if they read it – but if we all liked the same things it’d be a dull old world!

Review: I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell

017 - I Am I Am I Am

017 - I Am, I Am, I Am

Rating – 3*

This book has been receiving incredible reviews, and I was very excited to finally get to it because it sounded interesting. As with a lot of the Wellcome Prize longlist, they’re not books I would ordinarily pick up and that was certainly the case with this.

Firstly, I will say, the cover is gorgeous, I love it (and if anyone is interested, the header for this post is an electron microscope image of heart cells, to pay homage to the beauty of it).

The premise of the book is the author telling stories from her life from the near-death experiences she’s had. It is a really interesting concept, and one I was quite morbidly fascinated by. Although it’s billed as quite a sensational book, with the byline of “seventeen brushes with death” it’s a lot more reflective and intimate than it may be sold as. Also, the final chapter is about her daughter (which actually, for me, was the most poignant chapter) and a couple of the ‘brushes with death’ are tenuous at best. Not to make light of her life, but not all of it felt entirely relevant to the premise.

I’ve never read O’Farrell’s fiction, and while the writing in this book was beautiful on the whole I’m not entirely sure her writing is for me. Some of the meandering thoughts were just too much for me, and sometimes her writing I found a bit grating. That isn’t to say it wasn’t good, it was, I just felt that maybe an editor could have taken a bit more time and care to make it flow a lot better. Another thing about this book which was a bit baffling is the timeline. It’s all over the place. Maybe it was done to keep you reading, I don’t know, but generally speaking I like a memoir to move chronologically and this was backing and forthing.

There are so many positive reviews for this book, people raving about it, saying how much they connected to it. I just didn’t. I didn’t connect, I didn’t like the meandering prose, I didn’t enjoy the timeline being all over the place. And, writing this review a week on, it hasn’t been a book that stuck with me. In a way I understand how people might connect with this book, but for me it just wasn’t that five star read everyone has been raving about.

Review: Mayhem – Sigrid Rausing

016 - Mayhem

016 - Mayhem

Rating – 2*

Another day, another review for the Wellcome Prize longlist. Today I’m talking about Mayhem – which is a memoir about addiction and the impact it has on a family. While it was interesting, and intimate in parts, I didn’t find myself blown away by it, in fact I don’t feel there is much to say about it.

Rausing is the granddaughter of the man who found Tetra Pak, and her brother Hans is who this book is ultimately about. In 2012, after being arrested for possession of class A drugs, his London home was searched by the police where Eva – his then wife – was found dead. She had been dead for 2 months when the police found her. At the crux of it all was drugs – and this book (told from his sister Sigrid’s perspective) is essentially his side of the story, how he came to be addicted, how he and Eva tried to conquer their demons and ultimately the disease which is addiction.

I found the sections which focus on the science of addiction, the whole is it nature or is it nurture debate, really interesting and compelling. I can see why, based on these sections alone, it was longlisted but for me it lacked something. It was a personal story, but I felt constantly detached from the narrative. While I can tell that this is an emotional book for the author to write, it can’t have been easy reliving what was an absolutely awful period of history for her family, it came across to me as a bit narcissistic.

For me, personally, I don’t understand why this book is on the Wellcome longlist. It’s okay, it’s a memoir, but it doesn’t have that impact that things like When Breath Becomes Air or even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks did – and they’re comparable having both been shortlisted (and winning) the prize in the past. On the whole, a bit of a miss for me.

Review: Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World – Laura James

010 - Odd Girl Out

010 - Odd Girl Out

Rating – 4*

Odd Girl Out is a startlingly honest account of what it is to be on the autistic spectrum – and more importantly it’s an account from a female perspective. I wasn’t expecting this book to be as much of a memoir as it was, but that is by no means a bad thing as it added a dimension to the book I wasn’t expecting. Laura got her diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in her mid-forties, and the book follows her life from her diagnosis in August 2015 to December 2016 as she navigates life with the official “label” of ASD.

What I was expecting from this book I did get – an insight in to ASD in females. In females ASD is not picked up as readily because of how society views young girls and women, and because it has been found that females are mimetic of neurotypical behaviours and don’t ‘arise suspicion’ as easily as young boys and males with ASD. The science behind it is frankly incredible, and is something I find really interesting.

But, it was the personal experiences, the bit I wasn’t expecting, that I enjoyed more. The science is amazing but it’s that personal touch, her raw, honest experiences they were what got me most. I knew it was going to be a powerful book, but once I started reading I had to stop in places because I was nodding in agreement, or crying because I related. I related so much to so many of her experiences. While I’ve not been married, nor have I got children, a lot of the simple day-to-day examples of her life are things I understand. Sensory issues, struggling with daily tasks; she says how she often needs notes reminding her to do things that neurotypical people may find second nature such as getting dressed, eating, brushing their hair and cleaning their teeth. She goes on about how socialising is hard, as is understanding feelings and emotions. And I related so much more than I expected to, I underlined so much of this book because I saw myself in a lot of the pages.

On finishing this book I’m still undecided as to whether I want to go down the path of getting a diagnosis – is having another label going to be powerful? I don’t know. But I do know it is now something I am seriously considering because of this book. I would highly recommend this to anyone who has an interest in behaviour, psychology; to anyone who has someone in their lives who has autism, and generally anyone who wants to read some non-fiction because it’s an amazing book with an incredibly important topic at the centre.

Review: How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb

002 - How Not to be a Boy

002 - How Not to be a Boy

Rating – 4*

I’ve wanted to read this book since it was released. I saw Robert Webb interviewed, talking about it, and I knew that it was going to be an amazing read but when I then saw several people on goodreads give it 4 or 5 stars, I knew it was something special. This memoir is by no means a rose tinted look at the world, or Robert as a person, but it’s honest, poignant, sad and funny all at once – and I loved it.

Robert is the youngest of 4 children, his eldest brother passing away just 10 months before he was born. As such, he grew up a little pampered by his mother and a lot of this book is about his relationship with her – but also the troublesome relationship with his father, who abused alcohol and was abusive to his mother. The crux of this book is his development from boyhood to manhood, and the realisation as an adult (and a father) that societies pressures and programming wasn’t only wrong but harmful.

The book is split in to two sections – “Boys” and “Men” – the former section ending with the death of his mother when he was 17. The overarching themes are what boys are ‘taught’ to be by society, and what men are ‘supposed’ to be in the eyes of society. He touches on his relationships with his family, friends and teachers and how each of them shaped him in to who he is today.

It is sad, but at times it’s laugh out loud funny too. One of my favourite chapters was one in which he was talking about a play he was in which Stephen Fry came to see with his partner, and the late, great Carrie Fisher. The antics which ensued after said play had me giggling for a little while.

‘I want the same thing for boys, men, girls, women and anyone who grew up feeling that none of these worlds held any meaning for them. I want them all to have the freedom to express their individual and contradictory selves with confidence and humility.’ 

This book should be read by a lot of people – young boys and men especially. The overwhelming majority of suicide globally is young men, because they’re taught to suppress their feelings and they shouldn’t – something I think is expertly conveyed in this book with his own struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. This book would start discussion and I think that is the most important thing of all.

Once again, I listened to the audio version of this (narrated by Robert) which has a little extra bit at the end of him reading his ‘wanky’ teenage poetry without editing it, or himself, so there was lots of laughter from both him and me while listening. I’d recommend this book to anyone in any format, because I think it’s important and everyone should read it.

Review: Parsnips, Buttered – Joe Lycett

001 - Parsnips, Buttered

001 - Parsnips, Buttered

Rating – 4*

To start 2018 I have been on a bit of a comedian book binge. One of my friends read this and gave it 4* on goodreads, as such I wanted to read it because the few times I’ve seen Joe Lycett on my tellybox he’s had me crying with laughter. This book really didn’t disappoint – especially in audio format – and I was laughing throughout. I bought a physical copy on top of the audiobook because I knew I had to give it to my mum to read – and she’s already finished it. She’s not a reader by any stretch of the word, so it’s definitely a good one!

It’s hard to categorise this book, because it’s not much of anything. It’s not really a memoir, but equally it isn’t a self-help book. It is instead a collection of anecdotes and letters/emails that Joe has sent to various bodies/organisations – including a whole section on how he got out of his parking fine, how to annoy scammers, and generally how to wind up people you just don’t like very much. Joe is someone who is just full of energy and mischief, and definitely someone we could all take a bit of inspiration from.

The book itself is absolutely bonkers, but in between all the crazy there are moments where he raises important issues like homophobia, and also terrorism. He has no issue with calling a spade a spade, and manages to make very intense subjects lighthearted and something that, as a reader, I was able to laugh at. While they were funny, it wasn’t that he wasn’t taking them seriously, it was just dealt with in a way which made it entertaining.

I’d highly recommend this book if you like a good laugh, or you just want to learn how to challenge a parking fine. As I said, I listened to it as an audiobook but the physical book is also a beautiful thing with illustrations and the like throughout and I’d recommend both equally!

Review: How to be Champion – Sarah Millican

048 - How to be Champion

Rating – 3*

I love Sarah Millican. She’s one of the few comics I’ve seen live, and is funnier every time I watch the DVD. I can’t wait to see her again in March, because she makes me laugh so much I ache for a couple of days. She is one of the most genuine, lovely people I’ve ever had a like from on Twitter (she’s up there with Clare Balding folks) and everything she stands for I feel passionately about. That’s why it hurts me to say that I only liked this book – I didn’t love it and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Now, comedians writing books I love, and this is no exception to the fact. I listened to this as an audiobook, and that in itself was a joy. I think maybe if I had paired it with a physical copy of the book I would have enjoyed it far more. Sometimes an audiobook works, sometimes it doesn’t – in this case I think a combination of the two would have made this book a 4 or 5 star read for me. Mainly because Sarah likes lists (I like lists, who doesn’t like lists?!) and they’re most certainly things better read than listened to. On the whole though, I would recommend the audiobook because nothing beats the book being read how the author intended it to be!

The book is a series of anecdotes from Sarah’s life – from her childhood in the North East, with miners strikes and weekend jobs at WHSmith, right the way up to the present day. It covers all of her life quite concisely with a smattering of advice and I really liked that. I love a memoir/biography that throws in some life lessons and I think one of the biggest messages I took from it is love yourself. At the end of each chapter she gives a tip on ‘how to be a champion’ and I looked forward to each of them!

I gave this book 3 stars, and I feel awful about it. 3 stars on goodreads is a solid “I liked it” – and I did, I really did. I really hope she does more writing in the future because I find her so relatable and easy to read. The book did make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion (which was difficult to keep down when I was listening to it, trying to sleep, at 2am). I love what she has to say about body image, mental health and self-esteem. I just found a lot of it repetitive and not entirely my cup of tea, which makes me very, very sad.

Sarah is fantastic, and this book is definitely a read for anyone who – like me – loves the woman. She’s witty, sarcastic, and so many other wonderful things – this book really does show all of that. The book is champion, it really is, it just wasn’t entirely my cup of tea.

I’d recommend anyone who is a fan of her check out the Standard Issue podcast – the magazine was fantastic; the podcast is just a step up from it and I for one love it. It’s a podcast with women, by women, for anyone. It’s a lovely podcast of female empowerment and women standing up for other women, seriously recommend it.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

022 - When Breath Becomes Air

Rating – 5*

I was anxious going in to this book. I’ve heard and read so, so many reviews about this and I had no doubts that it was going to be a book which was going to break my heart just a little bit. Those thoughts were right, and this book was amazing – there really aren’t many other words I can use to describe it.

For anyone who isn’t aware, this book is a memoir. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon, but he was also a English Literature graduate, and held a Masters in the history of medicine before he went on to med school. His writing overlays both the love of literature, and the love of science and medicine, beautifully. The two are rarely combined, but as someone who does love both, I really appreciated who he mixed his knowledge of science and medicine with ideas and thoughts from literature.

At the age of 36, just before he completed his residency as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One day he was the doctor, the next day he was the patient. This book is his story, the journey he and his family took after that day he was diagnosed. I felt when reading this book that I knew him personally, that I went on this exhausting journey with him.

This book is unfinished; it ends with an epilogue written by his wife – Lucy – because he sadly died before he had a chance to fully complete this. While I’m sad that this is technically unfinished, I felt the note it ended on with his wife’s words, summarised the whole book. It wasn’t until I read the epilogue that I was moved to tears.

Kalanithi, from reading this book, was a caring, intelligent, genuine man who wanted to do good by people. He saw patients as people – not numbers or statistics – and I think a lot of people in medical professions could learn something from that alone.

I urge people to read this book, I read it in 1 sitting on a Sunday afternoon and I’m so glad I finally did.

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: No Cunning Plan – Tony Robinson

006-no-cunning-plan

Rating – 3*

This is by no means the best autobiography that I have read, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. As with many autobiographies, I actually listened to this as an audiobook as Tony Robinson narrates it himself – and I really, really love an audiobook narrated by the author as it gives it a little more depth for me.

No Cunning Plan is his story, as indicated by the subtitle, going in to this I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s not a book which contains soul searching and is instead the story of his life and career as told with wit, charm and a bit of self-deprecation. It is, on the whole, about his career – starting from when he was a young boy in a theatre production of Oliver right up to the present day. There are high and low points, and he’s not afraid to talk about the mistakes and the debauchery he got up to!

One thing surprised me about this and it’s how much Tony Robinson has done. Most people know him from Blackadder and Time Team (both of which I adore to this day, Time Team was my favourite Sunday night viewing as a kid) but I had no idea about how instrumental he was in kids TV, I had no idea about how involved in the theatre he was, nor did I have much clue about how politically active he was – and still is!

I don’t know what exactly I was expecting from this, but it was a perfect weekend listen for me. I plugged myself in and played solitaire and it made me smile. It was easy going and I’m glad I finally got around to it. Ultimately though, I felt it fell a little flat and I think while it was interesting, I came out of it wanting so much more than what it gave. For that I give it 3* but a hearty recommendation to anyone who want’s something easy to read/listen to!