Review: This Really Isn’t About You – Jean Hannah Edelstein

012 - This Really Isn't About You

012 - This Really Isn't About You

★★★

This was my first foray in to the Wellcome Book Prize Longlist for 2019 and, what can I say, this is an okay book.

This Really Isn’t About You is the authors experience with finding out she had a gene which increases her risk of specific types of cancer, and ultimately is the gene that killed her father. For me though there wasn’t nearly enough about this aspect of it – it was more a memoir on grief, sexual harassment and dating in a 21st century world than it was about the medicine and Lynch syndrome. That’s fine, but I was expecting a lot more from it I think.

It’s a very readable account, and the title is correct, it really isn’t about you it’s very much written by the author for the author. It reads like a therapy exercise, and while that does make it very easy to get through I did get to the end of the book and wonder what the point of it was. I would have loved a book which was more about her father – her father who was partly responsible for building the worlds first MRI scanner, a man who has had his part in the history of medicine. Her father was an incredible man and I’d have loved more about him, instead I found parts of this book to be really self absorbed.

But as I said, finishing this book I wondered what actually was the purpose of it. I don’t feel any more educated on Lynch Syndrome and, honestly, I read this book nearly a week ago and don’t feel I can recall much of it at all. I’d not have picked this up if it wasn’t for the Wellcome Prize, and honestly unless you’re really in to memoirs I’d not recommend it to anyone either.

Review: And the Wind Sees All – Guðmundur Andri Thorsson

011 - And the Wind Sees All

011 - And the Wind Sees All

★★★★

One of my many mini-challenges to myself in 2019 is to read more translated fiction, and a good place to start with any translated fiction is publishers which specialise in it. As I always seem to go for the same few publishers for translated fiction I decided to do a bit of research and branch out this time around which is how I discovered Peirene. I had previously heard of them, but just never picked anything up from them (so they disappeared from my memory, bad Ashleigh.) Anyway, I decided to go over to their website to see what they had on offer and was happy to find a number of books from countries I’ve never read before. Including this little gem from Iceland.

The blurb says that this book all takes place in 2 minutes, and that is sort of the case. What I thought it was and what it became were very different things in that I thought it was from one persons perspective, but it wasn’t. The book is a series of vignettes, from a series of individuals who all have one thing in common – the village in which they live. The main thread of the book is that the narrative takes place over a two minute bike journey which Kata – the choir conductor – takes through the village to the concert that evening. Each vignette from there is a snapshot in to the life of different villagers – some she encounters herself, others who observe her from their homes – sometimes we’re in the present but often we’re in the past.

With chapter exploring a different person it becomes more interesting the further in to it you get. I love seeing how characters from one persons past fit in to another past, or hearing a story from the other side of the fence. It really does bring the village alive, everyone is involved in everyone elses lives in one way or another. People have secrets, people have pasts, some people left the village and inevitably find themselves coming back, others have come to the village with no previous ties to it to escape from the city.

The writing in this book, and therefore also the translation, were beautiful. Parts of this were so, so poetic. I loved the more atmospheric descriptions of the landscape and whatnot, I’m a sucker for beautifully described nature and this was spot on for me. If this is the quality of all books published by Peirene I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on my next one from them (and bonus, some of the eBooks are 99p on the Kindle store at the moment, which cannot be snuffed at).

Wellcome Book Prize 2019|| Longlist Discussion

WBP - 001 - Introduction

Well it’s that time of year again, Wellcome Book Prize season. This year the Wellcome Prize is celebrating it’s 10th year, so it’s quite a special one. For those of you unfamiliar with the Wellcome Prize, all books nominated feature central themes of medicine, health, illness or biosciences and can be from either fiction or non-fiction shelves in your bookshop – they just have to represent the key points in a new and innovative way.

This year the longlist has surprised me. Books I expected to see there (including The Gene Machine) were not longlisted, and there are a few books I hadn’t even thought eligible which have been put there. So interesting to say the least and I will confess to being quite underwhelmed when I first saw it. The more I’ve looked in to the books I didn’t know about, the more positive I’m feeling about the longlist – the key themes this year appear to be mental health and gender and I am all for that – but compared to last year I don’t feel there are any immediate stand outs at this stage.

I’m also really happy to see that it’s pretty much 50/50 fiction and non-fiction – this excites me because it means that biosciences and medical representation are becoming more prevalent and better discussed in fiction. What I am sad about though is the lack of hard science – I understand the prize wants to be inclusive and get more people reading science based books but as a scientist I can’t help but be disappointed just a little bit that there’s not a more “sciencey” popular science book (The Gene Machine). But that’s just me being difficult.

WBP - 2019 Longlist

Wellcome Book Prize longlist 2019

 

The more I look at these books, and read about them, the more enthusiastic I find myself. The books this year are very different to the ‘traditional’ shortlist of denser popular science books and while I dislike change, I can only look at it objectively and say that it’s a good thing. In spite of my reservations with less “hard science” the Wellcome Prize remains one of the most varied literary prizes out there and this is definitely an accessible reading list with a good balance of fiction and non-fiction. A lot of the time prizes can get stagnant, but this one surprises me every year as it always seems to evolve in to something new.

A few of the books have been on my radar for a while (The Trauma Cleaner, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Sight and Heart) and only two I was actually going to pick up so this is just the motivation I needed to read the rest. The others I know very little about, I know there’s a fictionalised account of Alan Turing’s final year of life in Murmur, Amateur is the authors biography of becoming the first transgender man to box at Maddison Square Gardens. In fact there seems to be a lot of biography this year, which is all the better as I’ve really been enjoying a good biography/memoir as of late.

The shortlist is announced on March 19th – thankfully a Tuesday (I don’t work Tuesdays) – and I’m hoping to have got through the bulk of this longlist by then. Needless to say I have a few very, very exciting reading weeks ahead of me and I for one cannot wait!

Are there any books here that you’ve read? That you want to read? I’d love to hear from you!

Blog: January 2019

Wrap Up - 01 - January

Hello chums and happy February to you all! I hope this blog finds you all well and settling in to 2019 nicely!

Today it’s a wordy post as I’m going to be talking about my January highlights, this isn’t going to be solely book related but will instead include a general overview of January with some of my favourite things. Hopefully a little more interesting than a blow-by-blow account of all the things I read and the statistics of it all. But if you don’t give a toss about reading this, that’s also fine. Bookish related posts will resume tomorrow with a Wellcome Prize 2019 introduction!

Continue reading

Review: Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

005 - her body and other parties

005 - her body and other parties

★★★★

Something I want to do in 2019 is get back in to Short Story Collections. I love a short story collection and they were woefully absent from my reading last year. So when I tasked my sister to pick a few books for me and she picked this up I was very excited. Not only because yes, the cover is that green, but because the content sounded right up my street.

The stories in this collection are fantastic. They’re fabulist, magical, feminist and queer. There’s not a lot to dislike if I’m honest. There was one story that didn’t really engage me, and it seems to be a common theme among readers of this collection, and it’s the one which is an episode-by-episode account of Law and Order. As someone who isn’t a Law and Order fan that was a miss for me. But the rest of this collection? Amazing.

There are so many unreliable, but interesting narrators in here with stories which just err on the side of the fantastic but are grounded in reality. We have a woman who is documenting her survival in a devastating epidemic by her sexual encounters, in another story we join a woman who works in a clothes shop in a world where women are fading out of existence. There’s one story, Mothers, which is so out there it’s hard to follow and very open to interpretation; it’s the best example in the whole collection of the unreliable narrator in that our protagonist is handed a baby by her female ex-lover and it’s hard to follow what’s real and what isn’t after that event.

All of the stories in this collection are raw, gritty and at times difficult to read. But it’s fantastic and genuinely one of the most well put together collections I’ve read in a long time. It reminded me why I love short stories so much. It was the perfect blend of reality and magical, it’s feminist, it’s queer, it’s sexy. It’s a lot of things. I wouldn’t say this is the easiest collection to read, not when there’s elements of abuse and sexual violence interspersed throughout but it’s definitely a great book and one I’d recommend to people in the future.

Review: The Winter of the Witch – Katherine Arden

008 - the winter of the witch

008 - the winter of the witch

★★★★

It is absolutely no secret that I love this series, and this book has been at the top of my most anticipated releases since I finished book 2 in the Winternight series. I will start with saying that the series as a whole from me would get 5 stars but this book didn’t satisfy me in a way I had hoped it would.

It’s hard to review sequels – especially in a trilogy as far spanning as this one – without giving any spoilers away. This book picks up right in the action where the second book ended, and it definitely started as a 5* read. It was fast paced, exciting, starting to tie up loose ends and I loved it but I feel that some of it was unnecessary and ruined the plot for me. There is a lot going on in this book and at times, the action felt drawn out. Other times, I wanted it to move a little faster.

I love how Arden has blended medieval Russia and her fantasy world so seamlessly, I love how history, mythology, folklore and fairy tales have all been blended together. I found the afterword and the historical context to the series genuinely really interesting – not something I can often say about an afterword. I just feel there was something missing here, or maybe it was that there was too much to cram in to one final book, which left it feeling unresolved.

Vasya continues to be a fantastic character in this book; all the things I’ve loved about her in previous books come to a head and I felt in this book she became herself. She embraced all of her powers, and she owned them. She made decisions and stood by them. Everything she did she did of her own volition. Yet throughout the book her family is her main driving force, and I love that. I will say that there are a couple of scenes in which characters die – and those were intense, Vasya’s reactions were intense and believable and I felt emotionally invested in her.

Overall I felt this wasn’t the perfect ending at least for me. I will say it was a fantastic read, and I read it in the space of an afternoon. I just think it could have done with a bit of editing down, or a fourth book to properly develop some ideas. As with all the books in this series I listened to this as an audiobook and followed along with a print version and would very highly recommend this series on audio because it, somehow, makes it feel cosier. Perfect winter afternoon read in my eyes and I can’t wait to reread the series over the space of a weekend next winter!

Review: Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

007 - washington black

007 - washington black

★★★

Washington Black is a book that seemed to be everywhere last year – it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and has won numerous accolades. Needless to say it was a book I approached with some trepidation as it had such high praise from so many different areas, including reviews from people I trust.

I will start with saying that the writing in this book is beautiful, and I will definitely be reading more of Edugyan’s work. I can completely understand why this book had so much praise heaped on it however I can’t ignore the fact there are a lot of issues here that just made this book unbelievable. One of the biggest issues for me was that the plot drove the characters, not the other way around. For a first person narrative it feels quite passive, and while I understand the book is written as someone (Wash) looking back on his life I didn’t feel there as if I were seeing things through his eyes and living it with him – it was very much this happened, then this happened, then this happened. All tell, no show. Then there’s the whole globetrotting element which is just absurd, it doesn’t seem to matter where in the world someone is they find exactly who they are looking for just around a corner – Canada, Barbados or the Arctic it doesn’t matter.

The book starts off really strong, with a particularly interesting take on slavery in the West Indies, I was interested in the direction I thought this book was going to take but then it just became both meh and far fetched beyond belief. Some bits of it were fascinating, and fantastic, and when it was good it was really good. Come the end though I was slogging through it just to say I’d finished.

Also, I listened to the audiobook for the most part and while it was for the most part fantastic narration, there’s a bit in it which really ground my gears. There’s a brief interaction with a Scottish character and I don’t know what accent the narrator was doing but it sure as hell was not Scottish. It was awful. Just putting that out there.

I gave this 3 stars in the end, the first third of the book was good, the writing as a whole was beautiful, but the actual plot – the absurd twists and the dull characters just made this so, so difficult to enjoy.

Review: Gene Machine – Venki Ramakrishnan

006 - gene machine

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

003 - heroes

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

004 - one hundred shadows

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.