Review: Dracula – Bram Stoker

049 - Dracula

Rating – 5*

Dracula has long been among books I class as my favourites. I first read it 10 years ago, when I was but a girl of 14 (reading that review back was horrifying, let me tell you) and I remember loving it. I’ve not read it since then, but it’s always been a book that has stuck with me, and when asked to name some of my favourite books I always say “Dracula” without hesitation. I read it because of all the Twilight hype, I hated that book so decided to read the ‘original’ vampire novel and I remember being swept away in the dark, mysterious lore that Stoker created – and the same happened all over again on this reread.

While I seem to have remembered a lot of the novel in the 10 year gap since my last reading, on reading it this time around I think a lot of it did go over my head. I did say in my review that I would have to read it back to fully appreciate it, it seems that 14 year old me actually knew I was in over my depth because I definitely enjoyed it more this time around.

One major change in my opinion in 10 years is the fact I absolutely loved the fact this novel was epistolary this time around. The fact it was told through letters and journal entries, it builds such a better picture and you see each character through different sets of eyes. The story has so many layers in being told this way, because there is overlapping between the characters narratives. I’ve never been one for an epistolary novel, but Dracula certainly nails it. The story really works told in the way it was, and I honestly don’t think that a traditional narrative would have given the story such a profound impact, or even the longevity.

I can say without any hesitation this is one of my favourite books, and I feel I can say it with more confidence as I have read it both as a teenager and an adult without any change in my feelings towards it. I can see it becoming a book I reread quite a lot in my future, as it is a perfect, Autumn read when enjoyed with a cozy blanket, pyjamas and a cup of coffee.

Review: You Sad Feminist – Megan Beech

050 - You Sad Feminist

Rating – 5*

Last year, when I read When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard I thought I had found my perfect poetry collection, the one I’d keep coming back to again and again, that was until I read this. Megan Beech surpassed herself in this second collection, and I don’t even know how to put in to words what I am feeling after reading You Sad Feminist because it was amazing, and I feel amazing after reading it.

In You Sad Feminist there is not only hard hitting feminist poetry (what isn’t to like in that sales pitch?) but also it explores her personal experience, and feelings, about mental illness. That was a theme in her previous collection, but it was more pronounced in this second helping of her work. This last year I’ve really struggled with my mental health, and I am so proud of myself for where I’ve got to in just a year, and in this collection I found myself identifying even more with what she was saying. This is the sort of poetry I wish I could write, because every word of this collection was incredible and resonated with me. It put in to words my feelings about myself, my mental health, and even the world in general in the most eloquent way and I found myself reading, and rereading poems in this book throughout a day. I probably read it in it’s entirety about 3 times over the course of a Sunday, and I’ve dipped in and out of it since just revisiting favourite lines.

In my review of her previous collection, I touched on the fact she was a performance poet and how that doesn’t always translate well to the written word – once again she nails it. Since reading this I’ve looked on youtube, found a few clips of her performing poems form this collection and while the words are a lot more hard hitting when read aloud, the meaning isn’t lost when just reading to yourself.

One of the bits that hit me most was in the last poem The Workshop. This wasn’t only because I’m the biggest Wizard of Oz fan, but also because it put in to a few short lines the last year of my life:-

This greyness, this staleness will not last.
You do not have to suffer.
Like Dorothy in Oz, your life that was can wash from greyscale to technicolour.
From this, your spirits can lift and your body can recover.
There is another road, a life of yellow brick gold in which you can find health and heart and home.

I sincerely urge people to look this woman up because she’s incredible. There are plenty of clips of her performing on YouTube – and I hope one day to be lucky enough to see her perform in person. In the mean time, please read or watch her work.

Naturally, this is a 5/5 read and one I have left copious amounts of post-it notes in so I can revisit as and when I wish to.

Review: Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

047 - Our Mutual Friend

Rating – 4*

Our Mutual Friend has been one of those books that I had a very on/off relationship with. The first 25% I absolutely stormed through, the middle 50% I struggled with, then it picked up again towards the end. Unlike my favourite of Dickens’ books, Bleak House, I didn’t find this as compelling or engaging meaning it took me the best part of 2 months to actually read it.

The novel kicks off with a body being found in the Thames. The body is identified to be that of John Harmon, a young man who has recently come home to London in order to claim his inheritance. However, upon his death the inheritance  instead passes to the Boffins, a working class family, and the effect of this spreads into London society.

 

As always with a book by Dickens, this has an expansive character list – all of which have interesting traits and characteristics. Some of them do feel more like caricatures, but for me that’s part of the charm with a Dickens novel. Lizzie is annoyingly angelic and probably annoyed me the most out of all the characters, because she felt even more flawless and contrived than Esther in Bleak House. Her innocence and naivety felt forced, and for me that was frustrating. Bella is flawed even after her character goes through a complete transformation. She is sweet, and silly, and full of compassion and her scenes with John (who is equally fantastic) were so great to read. John, is Our Mutual Friend, as without him there wouldn’t be a book to read. Everyone in this story is brought together, in some way or another, by John and I think that in and of itself was a really interesting concept for a book.

This was Dickens’ last complete novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood was incomplete at the time of his death) and I think it is definitely one of his strongest for character and plot, I just found the actual writing – and therefore the reading of it – a bit clunky. It didn’t capture me like Bleak House did, but then I feel I have to stop comparing all Dickens’ novels to Bleak House in order to give them a fair chance!

I can’t wait to read more Dickens. I feel I may be finishing at least one more before the year is out – so keep an eye out for that if you’re interested!

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

046 - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rating – 5*

Putting my feelings for this book in to coherent sentences is going to be hard. This is a book I’ve been aware of long before I started my degree, and I really wish I had read it prior to university because it would have given me a different aproach to my day to day lab work. I knew her name, which is more than many scientists did, but when dealing with cell cultures it’s sometimes difficult to remember that every cell came from somewhere, and in many cases came from someone. More importantly, the immortal cell line – HeLa – which came from her tumor has changed the lives of everyone alive today. Yet, she was unknown until 20 years after the biopsy was taken, and she doesn’t get thanks for that.

This book was so much more than a book about cells – I’ve read many of books about cells and this wasn’t comparable to any of them. This is the biography of a woman science – the world – needs to remember the name of. Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a young mother of 5 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and unknown to her or her family the doctor took two biopsies that day. One would diagnose her with cancer, the other would go on to be the most prolific cell line in history. HeLa cells have gone on to change the world – they were instrumental in the development of medical treatments such as the polio vaccine, they’ve been in to space, they’ve changed the face of science and medicine to what we now know it. But this is a book about the woman behind that immortal cell line; the mother, sister, wife, cousin, and friend. It’s a book full of compassion and it made me cry because I know just how instrumental this woman has been in my life.

The story in these pages is not an easy read. It covers race, religion, discrimination of many kinds, the American medical system (which to this day horrifies me), medical ethics, rights to our bodies and tissues – what it covers seems to be endless. There is also a brief touch on mental health in the book, due to one of Henrietta’s children – Elsie – suffering from epilepsy and being institutionalised at a very young age. While we never know the exact details of how the poor girl was treated while in the ‘care’ home, the general opinion on what was likely to have occurred sent a shiver down my spine. But for me, the thing which gave me most hope, was that education is power. Deborah, one of Henrietta’s children, armed with a dictionary and google, was determined to learn as much about her mother and what her cells have done for the world as possible.

Rebecca Skloot is a fantastic journalist who became fascinated by the story of the woman behind the cells when she was in college. She knew from a reasonably early point in her career that this was the book she wanted to write because the more she understood, the more she wanted to know about Henrietta. She handles this book with extreme grace and compassion, with very much overdue respect and gratitude to the family in every page of this book.

Honestly, this book is one that will stay with me for a lifetime. It’s not your typical, stodgy non-fiction as it’s more about the woman, not the science. It’s approachable and informative, and a very much deserved winner of the Wellcome Prize in 2010. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I leave you on this note:- HeLa cells, which were taken from the tumour on Henrietta Lacks’ cervix – were found to contain human papillomavirus 18 (HPV-18). HPV-18 is one of the strains of HPV which can cause cervical cancer, and in 2006 the cell line from Henrietta was used to develop a vaccine which is now given to all female school children in the UK (and many countries worldwide) which has, on estimate, cut cervical cancer cases by two thirds in 10 years. It’s by no means a cure, but it reduces the risk. That, for me, is something I feel both Henrietta (and her family) should be very proud of.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

045 - The Left Hand of Darkness

Rating – 2*

The Left Hand of Darkness is a book that I’ve wanted to read for quite a long time. It’s certainly been on my radar for at least 18 months, and I’ve had it on my shelf for around a year. I had high hopes for it, as it seemed to be right up my alley (sci-fi, gender, sexuality etc.) and I so desperately wanted to love this book. As you can tell, I really didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. This is probably going to get a little ranty, because I have Feelings about this book.

As always with books I have high expectations for, I go in quite harshly. I think maybe if I had read this book at a time when I was more influential – or generally younger. The main selling point of this book is gender/biological sex and the fact that the native species on the planet our protagonist goes to are ambisexual (meaning they are neither gender, but have traits of both) who take on the role of binary male/female when they enter their ‘mating season’. That premise sounded fantastic, but for me it was actually handled quite poorly.

Our main character, Genly Ai, struggles with this fluidity of gender – and as such nearly every character in this book is referred to as he/him, traits associated with women are considered negative in a character and there’s only so much of that I can take without going in to a blind rage. I found myself getting very frustrated throughout, which really took away from a lot of the good things about this book – things like politics and the world building, which had I not been angry would have maybe been more enjoyable. To me, rather than a planet full of ambisexual beings, the planet was full of men who happened to sometimes have babies – for me this missed the mark on exploring the fluidity of gender.

I understand when this was written there wasn’t the acceptance that there is today, or the tact in language, but there are simple things that could have worked which did “exist” back when this was first written – simply put gender neutral pronouns are very simple things, but omitted from use. It’s an alien race, there was scope to create gender neutral pronouns which were unique to the Gethenian people. Why are parents referred to as fathers, children as sons, and siblings as brothers if it’s a genderless society, and all beings are equal? If this book had been set on a planet where it was entirely male and they occasionally gave birth, I probably wouldn’t have read it, but I wouldn’t have this issue. And if you haven’t realised by this point, I have an issue!

Once I had hold of this issue, it got under my skin and completely detracted any of my initial excitement over it. I lost what little emotional connection I had with the characters, reading it felt like a chore, and I found myself very much uncaring as to how it was going to end. I don’t often skim books, but the last 50 to 100 pages of this I did simply speed read to get it over with.

 

Review: The Stone Gods – Jeanette Winterson

044 - The Stone Gods

Rating – 4*

Firstly, I don’t know how I’ve got to the age of 24 (almost) without having read any Jeanette Winterson novels. Nope. Not even Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I’ve always known that I was going to love her work, so putting it off until I needed a book that was going to blow me away seemed logical – and it worked.

I don’t even know how to describe The Stone Gods. It starts in a futuristic past, and ends in a dystopian future. It’s everything I wanted it to be and more. It reminded me a lot of Battlestar Galactica in it’s premise, with the recurring theme of “all of this has happened before. All of this will happen again” and we see Billie and Spike in three different incarnations, each of them intertwining and it’s simply fantastic.

This book actually made me shed a tear, and I can’t remember the last time a book did that (probably more recently than I actually remember, if I’m honest with myself!) but it takes a lot for me to be moved to tears, and this did it. More than once. Why? It gave me an insight in to humanity, the world as a whole, and also it raised the scary realisation that this is becoming less and less like a dystopia and a lot more believable. And while it was sad in parts, it also made me laugh and it takes a lot to meld those two contrasting emotions so seamlessly within paragraphs of each other.

Truly this book is fantastic and I really, really cannot wait to delve in to more of Winterson’s work as it is very much overdue on my part! I’d really highly recommend this book to someone who maybe hasn’t read much of Winterson’s work – because it felt like a great starting place. Also, if you’re unsure where to start with literary fiction in general than this felt very approachable primarily because it crosses over with sci-fi quite spectacularly, making it the perfect starting point for someone wanting to branch out. Oh, and if you’ve watched Battlestar Galactica and wanted it to be a little more gay? yeah. Read this.

Review: Other Minds – Peter Godfrey-Smith

043 - Other Minds

Rating – 4*

I was drawn in to this book by the cover – it wasn’t something I had planned on picking up or reading, yet the octopus on the front drew me in and I read it cover to cover in two sittings.

I have a bit of a history with the octopus – back in my first year of university I wrote an essay about them, and in researching them I became fascinated by the whole family of cephalopods. They are such interesting, inteligent creatures and this book explores the evolution of them compared to us. I was also quite keen on evolutionary biology when at university (although, let’s not talk about that exam) and it’s one of those subjects that I just love reading about for pleasure. This book brought together two aspects of my degree that I loved, and as such I really enjoyed this book.

One of the most incredible sections of this book – one that I read more than once – was the section about how cephalopods like octopus, cuttlefish and squid are able to change colours. Now that in itself isn’t surprising, most people know that they’re able to change colour, what actually made me quite sad was the revalation in this book that they are all likely colourblind so can’t see the beauty themselves. I also found the section on the aging of the animals an interesting read because I was niavely under the impression that they could live for many years but that’s a misconception and they’re lucky if they live past one breeding season (in the case of females).

The author explores the development of the cephalopod brain and compares it to our own. He highlights how the development of mammalian and avian brains differs to that of cephalopods, and how differently we process information. What is established in this book is that cephalopods look at the word in a very different way to us (in spite of the fact that eyes and vision in general is quite similar, though evolved completely independently from each other). The stark differences between mammalian and cephalopod brains and cognition is likely the closest we’ll ever get to exploring the concept of alien intelligence because neural pathways and the brain in cephalopods evolved separately to those same traits in the mammalian world.

Putting it in to perspective, biologically an octopus is more closely related to a snail than humans, yet psychologically and on an intellectual level an octopus is very close to humans.

My only wish is that there was more science in it. I found that there was often tangents and side-notes, and it erred into the realms of philosophy opposed to science which is fine in moderation but I felt it happened all too often. I’d have loved for this book to have been a few pages longer and just rounded off less abruptly. But on the whole, I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to someone looking for something a little different to read – it’s a very approachable book and the audiobook is absolutely fantastic (but you’ll miss out on the pictures of octopuses and cuttlefish).

Review: Lumberjanes – Vol. 1 to 6 – Noelle Stevenson et al.

Lumberjanes 1-6

Rating – 3* to 5*

Lumberjanes was my first foray in to a graphic novel – Volume 1 was available free through the Amazon Prime lending library and, having heard amazing things about this series, I decided it was very much a good place to start with the graphic novel genre. I wasn’t wrong because I am officially a convert to the form.

I was debating for a while about how best to review these – whether I should do individual reviews or just a bulk review – and as I recently finished the final volume currently in publication I decided to just do an overarching review of the whole series as it stands.

To summarise, the books follow a group of 5 friends (Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley) who are at a summer camp – Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for hard-core lady-types – I mean I think that tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the series! It’s fun, it’s funny, the girls get in to some Scooby Doo worthy situations with monsters and mermaids, and it’s about their friendship. It just filled me with joy reading it because all the girls are so, so different and each have their shining moments, and it is just a wonderful, wonderful series to read and one I think would appeal to so many different age groups – I love it and I’m nearly 24, but I’m pretty certain some of my friends younger sisters of 8 and 9 would love it just as much!

The first few in the series, I adored the artwork, however the primary artist changed and while I still loved the content I was quite sad to see the original art go because for me that was part of the charm of the characters. I got used to it but after going on a binge it was a bit of a shock to the system to see the characters all looking different! Thankfully the girls all kept their personalities so I eventually adjusted.

I could very easily read these over and over again, if only because I love Mal and Molly so much – my little gay heart could hardly handle it! This series completely NAILS representation, honestly, people come in all shapes and sizes, have different family dynamics, there’s exploration of sexuality and gender – but none of it is so in your face, or overtly ‘token’ – it feels natural and a lot more lifelike than many books aimed at an older audience.

This was a fantastic, fantastic, introduction to graphic novels and I can’t wait for the next two volumes to be released! One is due out in December and I’ma gonna get me that on preorder!

I leave you with a picture of Mal & Molly from (I think) the second volume, just to show you how darn adorable they are.

Screen-Shot-2015-12-14-at-12.29.49-AM

Review: Justine – Alice Thompson

042 - Justine

Rating – 3*

Justine is a very interesting, but bizarre, book. It is short at only 140 or so pages, but it packs a punch. I hesitate to compare it to anything, because I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before – but it reads like something written pre-1900, even though it’s a contemporary novel. For me, personally, I saw a lot of similarities between it and The Picture of Dorian Grey – but maybe it’s because it is about a man obsessed with a painting – and also Moby Dick (not that there’s any whales) but it’s focal point is a man driven to obsession over something.

The protagonist in this story is rich and spoiled. He is a man of frivolities and indulgence; he buys fancy paintings and lazes around smoking opium. At the start of the book, Justine is merely a figure in a painting who he fancies himself in love with, but then one day he sees a woman who is remarkably like the woman from the painting, and her name is also Justine. As a man with an addictive, and obsessive personality, he becomes ensnared by Justine and is absolutely convinced he is meant to be with her. But then there’s another woman, Justine’s twin sister Juliette and that’s when things get a bit crazy…

Needless to say I read this book in one sitting because it was so, so engaging. It’s fast paced and kept me guessing what would happen at every turn. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the other novella I’ve read by Thompson (The Book Collector) but I really do love her writing. My main issue with this book is, quite oddly for Salt, there were numerous spelling mistakes and typos throughout which really irritated me and reduced my overall enjoyment. Thankfully, I persevered because I really liked what I was reading, but I would tell any potential reader to be aware of their presence!

I can’t wait to read the other book(s?) I have by Alice Thompson sitting on my shelf. I have a feeling they might be good October reads!

Review: Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

041 - Stay With Me

Rating – 5*

I read this book in June – it was one of the few books I read while also reading War and Peace – and it’s been one of the hardest books to review in a long time. There was just so much to it. I went in to it, as with most hyped books, quite sceptical, but I came out the other side very much happy I gave in to peer pressure. I actually read this book in one sitting while on holiday, once I started reading it, I didn’t want to put it down. It was very much a ‘just one more chapter’ book – and then it was gone. All of it.

I really didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It is, at it’s crux, a book about motherhood. I’m not a mother, I don’t have any intention to become a mother, so I wasn’t convinced that I would find myself empathising with the main character, but I did. Yejide is one of the most complex, interesting characters I’ve ever walked in the shoes of – and Adébáyò is a magnificent writer because her character is made of so many layers and we see all of them as readers, I felt I understood her and her motivations.

As much as this book is about motherhood, it’s about family and parenthood in general, and also the cultural idea of a family as well. With all of the struggles to conceive, her husband Akin is pressured by his own family to introduce a second wife to their marriage – a common practice in Nigeria. In seeing Yejide’s childhood you understand her anger at this situation, and why she becomes so obsessed with conceiving their child – she would go to any lengths to be a mother and, in many ways, it was heartbreaking to read.

Every review I’ve read or watched about this book says that it takes you for a ride. There are so many twists and turns, and that just when you think you know what’s going to happen, something else does and proves you wrong. I am always dubious of reviews like that, but for once I really agree with them. This book went in so many directions it was an absolute roller-coaster, especially for my emotions.

I gave this book 5 stars. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone, I didn’t think it would be for me at all, yet I still found I could empathise because the writing is just so damn good. I read it nearly 2 months ago now and it has stuck with me, to the point I often think about it. The characters were just so vibrant I can’t help but think about them regularly. So seriously, give it a go if you haven’t yet!