Review: Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell

026 - Wives and Daughters

Rating – 4*

Wives and Daughters is the first Gaskell book I’ve read and certainly won’t be my last as I really enjoyed this book. I won’t lie, I purchased this book solely for the cover – I think it’s absolutely beautiful and honestly one of the prettiest of the Penguin English Library editions. The fact I enjoyed the content was just an added bonus!

After reading a lot of non fiction,  I decided it was time to get back in to fiction. I have a list of 12 classics I want to read before the year is out and so far I’ve read two – this was the third from that list. After reading non-fiction I wanted something which, while a classic, was a more easy read and I’m really glad I picked this up because, honestly, it’s a really good place to start with classics in my opinion.

The story follows Molly, who we are introduced to as she is a young girl and we then see grow into a woman. Molly has been raised by her widowed father, and I think this was actually quite a nice thing to be seen in fiction from this era for it isn’t very often you get a single father narrative in a book (least of all in a classic!) Molly is quite a sheltered young woman, having grown up relatively isolated and her naivety comes through, but it’s not all that frustrating for me, it was actually quite endearing.

A lot happens in this book, and I don’t want to give it all away. But Molly’s world does get turned upside down when her father takes a new wife, she finds herself with a ‘wicked step-mother’ – though not all that wicked, she is quite shallow and conniving. There is love for Molly too, this is after all a classic and what classic doesn’t have love in store for the protagonist? Again, I didn’t find the romance in this book too shabby – it was for me quite believable (even though much of the book was cliched).

I found there were so many references to fairy tales. For a start, this book does open up with this passage:

“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room – a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.”

That frankly oozes fairy tale. Then there is the widowed father, naive young girl, step-mother, step-sister, and ultimately a romance for the protagonist. As I said, overall I found this a very charming, endearing, and very spring-like read and the fairy tale quality of it just added to that enjoyment.

However, this book is unfinished. Elizabeth Gaskell sadly died before she could finish it; though there are several sources which do outline what her original ending intended and as a reader it was pretty apparent what the story was building up to. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to finish it in her own words, rather the ending had to come from several sources and be more word of mouth. I would have really enjoyed to have read the ending in her own words.

This was a lovely break from all the non-fiction I’ve been reading lately, and definitely got me back in to classics. I think I would have maybe enjoyed this more had I been younger when I read it – as I said I feel this would be a good place to start with classics if you’re unfamiliar with them.

Review: Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

025 - Mend the Living

Rating – 4*

So, this was the final book on the Wellcome Prize shortlist for me to read. I tried reading a few pages of it earlier on in my challenge to read the shortlist and I knew it was one that I was going to have to dedicate a full day to – it isn’t a book that I was going to be able to read over the course of a few days.

This book starts at 5:50am on a Sunday morning. It finishes a 4:59am on Monday morning. It’s the day in the life of Simon Limbres’ heart. Simon, who wakes up Sunday morning to go out with his friends – but doesn’t live to see Monday. It’s told through several narratives, we follow the doctors, the nurses, Simon’s family, the recipient of his heart. It’s a spanning book and really emphasises how every minute in the domino effect which is organ transplantation counts.

When this book was on topic, it was incredible. I loved the narratives which centred around the medicine, the decision making, the science. However, there are several tangents which just make no sense and absolutely ruined this for me – which is a shame because this could have been so much more if the waffle was just cut out.

I don’t think I would have picked this up had it not have been for this prize. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year – losing out to several other incredible translated books. I’m glad it’s one that’s getting recognition because it covers such an important topic and something that I’m very passionate about.

As I said though, it could have been cut down 50-70 pages and been just as incredible. While backstory is great, I don’t think this needed quite as much as it gave to each person tangentially connected to Simon.

So, that’s the last of my reviews for the shortlist. I will be posting a full consolidation of my thoughts and a general discussion of the prize and my feelings on who will win closer to the time of the winner being announced (April 24th!) Needless to say, I need to really think about this as these books have given me so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t say right now which one I want to win!

Review: Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

024 - Moll Flanders

Rating – 4*

Today it is time for a wee break from the Wellcome Prize and on to a classic. Moll Flanders. Personally,  I couldn’t think of a better way to break up all the non-fiction than to take a romp in the 18th century with a woman who was once portrayed on screen by Alex Kingston. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book and have Alex Kingston at the forefront of their mind?! Anyway…

Moll Flanders is the story of Moll Flanders. Moll starts off a girl, a girl who wants to make her own fortune in the world. She comes from a working class origin, and dreads the thought of going in to service (which is apparently the only option for a girl of her origin). She wants to be a lady. She wants to find Mr Right, settle down, and have financial security. After all, life in the 18th century wasn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, especially as a woman. London itself was not exactly the nicest place to be either, and Moll tries to make the best of the bad situation she finds herself in.

I really liked this book. Moll is probably one of my favourite characters in classic literature. She’s fun, she’s refreshing, she’s not a chaste, or girly, or swooning imitation of a woman from the Austen world of writing which drive me mad. She was ballsy, bawdy, and downright hilarious in parts. And reading this I could only picture Alex Kingston – and that made her even better in my opinion!

I found this really easy to read, and in places I was laughing out loud. It was genuinely good fun – which is something I rarely get to say about a classic. The plot was sparse, but I whacked the book up a star because Moll is amazing and I truly wish there were more women like Moll in classic fiction. She’s a gem, and I found myself rooting for her throughout even if she did make dubious decisions.

I’m looking forward to reading more Defoe. Not sure he’s top of my list to read, but one day I will read more!

Review: How To Survive a Plague – David France

023 - How to Survive a Plague

Rating – 4*

There is no denying that this book is hard hitting, and one which has left a lasting imprint on me. It isn’t a book I would have picked up had it not been for the Wellcome Prize shortlisting of it. This book is a very personal insight in to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

It is by no means an easy read, both in content and style. The writing is quite dense, and it is long and incredibly detailed. I persevered with it, in spite of it being quite difficult to work through at times because I knew what I was reading was important. It was a voice I hadn’t heard before. I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in a world where AIDS and HIV is part of everyday understanding, we’re taught about it in school; sexual health is taught year in, year out and we get letters posted to us from our doctors surgery urging us to get tested for STIs (my school even had chlamydia tests in toilets, and numbers and addresses for the sexual health/family planning clinics in the area) I can’t even imagine the horrors and the fear that people felt in a world where there wasn’t an answer. Where there wasn’t that understanding, even on a small scale. This book barely scrapes the surface of that fear I can only imagine feeling.

However, as I said, this book is quite dense. There are so many individual stories in here, stories of so many people and every one of them is important, but the book felt cramped and crowded. Every voice is important, but for me there were just too many to be able to focus in on what this book is ultimately about – the discovery of the HIV virus. For me, this wasn’t a book about popular science, so going in to it I had a slightly warped perception of what lay before me. The science when it showed up was interesting, but the in depth analysis of clinical trials did have me skimming through after a while.

For me, as someone who identifies on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, this is a very important book to read. Reading this made me realise just how damn lucky I am. Reading this brought me to tears, it devastated me in parts.

I wish there were an abridged version, or that the book was in two parts maybe – the scientific side, and the more personal side which tells the stories of the people in this book – I understand they overlapped significantly, but for me this was a bit disjointed in parts because of the juxtaposition of the two factors.

This is a very, very important book to read. There is no denying that. I’m glad to have read it, and I know a couple of people I will recommend this to. But it’s not an easy read by any stretch of the word, it’s intense in both the content and the sheer denseness of the writing and I can’t quite bring myself to give this 5* because I didn’t love it like I did some of the others in the shortlist.

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: I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong

021 - I Contain Multitudes

Rating – 3*

This is the 3rd book from the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist that I have read, and if I’m honest it’s so far my least favourite.

Now, the content of this is really interesting and something I didn’t know much about (I am by no means a microbiologist, and what little I do know about microbes comes from New Scientist articles!) The microbiome is fascinating and this book makes it something that is very approachable and easy to understand. There are numerous good examples in this book, relating what is ultimately an enormous subject to things that anyone can understand. For me, it was also quite a fast paced book which is a rarity in non fiction.

Microbes are something which are all around us; inside of us, our homes, our environments. Everywhere. Science is now understanding the unique relationship that animals, plants, and the environment have with microbes. Studies in to the relationship between humans and our microbial tenants are hoping to understand how our overall health relates to the happiness of our microbiome. There is a lot of research in to illness and our microbiome, and how it can directly and indirectly affect our overall health. With society obsessed with sterilisation and cleanliness we are now at the point where we are doing more ham than good, and while there is no doubt that sterilisation has lead to significant improvements in healthcare there is strong evidence to suggest that things like air conditioning, and obsessively cleaning, causing more harm to society as a whole.

However, while I enjoyed this on the whole, there were a number of things which I found borderline irritating throughout. I found bits of it quite repetitive, while I appreciate that things do have to be repeated sometimes, I found there were a lot of instances of the same thing being said throughout the book quite needlessly. I know it’s probably a small thing, but for me it really affected my overall enjoyment.

I have absolutely no doubt that the future of Ed Yong’s writing is something I am looking forward to. I just feel that this book could have been so much more with a better organisation and maybe a bit of editing. I have no doubt that his articles and shorter work would be great, they’d be more fine tuned and less waffle-y! I also found that the barrage of Latin names for bacteria and microbes borderline annoying, it made it read more like a research paper than a book and with the otherwise relaxed tone of the book it made it feel a bit disjointed.

On the whole, I learnt quite a bit from this book, and it has changed the way I’ll be looking at things in the future and I did enjoy it. There were just minor things for me which didn’t make this as enjoyable as some other non-fiction books I’ve read lately (especially The Gene, another shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize which I absolutely adored and reviewed a few days ago!) and while I’m aware you shouldn’t compare, it’s hard not to when they’re shortlisted for the same prize.

If you’re interested in learning more about microbes and your microbiome, this is a pretty good read, and quite an easy one to follow too.

Review: The Gene – Siddhartha Mukherjee

020 - The Gene

Rating – 5*

This book is one that had been on my radar for quite some time before I decided to pick it up. I’d been umming and ahhing over it for a while, but it being shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize meant I finally got that kick up the backside and picked it up. How I wish I had picked this up when it was first released!

This may be a stretch, but this is up there at one of my favourite non-fiction books now, definitely top of the ‘popular science’ category! To put it in to perspective as to how much I loved this, I read it as the Kindle edition, also purchased the audiobook (also good, highly recommend) and on my lunch break Thursday – two days after I finished it – I bought the paperback. I just can’t get enough of this book. Seriously.

I love reading about genetics, the history and the future. While this book is a monster (I read the Kindle version which is over 700 pages) it was so engaging, I just whizzed through it. As I said, I love reading about genetics, and as a result I have read a huge number of popular science books on the subject (along with behemoth textbooks) – some are good, some are absolutely mindnumbingly boring. This though, this is possibly the most readable, most approachable, and most engaging one of the lot; not only that it is so in depth – I didn’t feel like anything was missed out from a scientific standpoint. So yes, this book is a non-fiction masterpiece in my eyes.

For a start, I loved the format of this. I don’t know how he did it, but it felt more ‘intimate’ than many other books which focus on the same subject. I think that this came primarily from the brief biographies that were given in the text of the scientist at the centre of particular discoveries; there were histories of Darwin, Mendel, and my personal favourite, Rosalind Franklin.

Going off on a tangent for a moment, I was pleasantly surprised with this book. Not only does it recognise the achievements and contribution (and subsequent overlooking) of female scientists in the history of genetics. It also looks in to the genetics behind sexuality and gender identity. I was on edge when the words “gay gene” were mentioned – but it was handled quite sensitively and I was pleasantly surprised at how open minded the handling of this topic was. Also included, and handled with immense sensitivity, was the subject of eugenics, forced sterilisation, Nazi studies in to genetics – some of that was hard reading!

Back to the book as a whole, I found that the chronology of this really layered up information piece-by-piece. It was so skillfully done, and I really think I would have benefited from reading this book when I was doing my A Levels, and my degree as a supplementary text to refresh the history of the subject, and because the science is there but the ‘popular science’ style of writing makes it more digestible and much less intimidating than a 1000 page textbook on the subject!

Ultimately, this is an incredible book (can you tell I think that?) and I absolutely loved it. I’m glad that the prize actually made me pick it up because I honestly think I’d have missed out on something important had I not read this. I’d urge anyone looking for a good non-fiction book to give this a whirl, yes it’s big, but it’s the best book on the subject I’ve read.

Review: The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss

sarah-moss-book-cover-tidal-zone-2016

Rating – 4*

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 4 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!

Review: Romola – George Eliot

019 - Romola

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.