Review: I Contain Multitudes – Ed Yong

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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: Romola – George Eliot

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Rating – 3*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Junk DNA – Nessa Carey

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Rating – 3*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Moss Witch and Other Stories – Sara Maitland

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Rating – 3*

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 3*

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Other World, It Whispers – Stephanie Victoire

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Rating 3*

I picked this book up for a number of reasons. One, it’s published by Salt – who are amazing and one of my favourite publishers (also, local and when you order direct from their website you get wonderful little postcards, never fails to cheer me up!) – I’ve yet to read a book published by them that I didn’t like – be that poetry, short stories or a novel. Second, just look at that cover – it’s gorgeous and the quote is from Kirsty Logan. Third, the blurb on the back really appealed to me. Fairy tales and folklore, spirits and witches. Definitely up my alley.

However, for me, as a whole the collection felt a little underbaked.

Now, there were a few stand-outs for me; it was just that a few stories felt a little underdeveloped. I  think this would have been incredible had some of those underdeveloped stories been a little longer, just to give them a chance to grow! This book was a mass of incredible ideas and I wasn’t wrong, it was completely up my alley, it just needed something more.

A story I adored was Layla and the Axe – for me it felt like one of the more complete of the collection which is a little odd as it’s one that ends on quite an open note leaving the reader to make a decision of what ultimately happens. It had tones of Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood – mainly because there’s a forest and a house in it. But it’s much darker than even they are and I really loved it.

I also felt that she dealt with gender and sexuality well in a fairytale context. In Shanty our protagonist is a girl born into a boys body, and finds comfort in mermaids, and longs and wishes to be a mermaid, to have that freedom and liberation – that story alone contained some incredible prose which I read over and over. There is also the final story of the collection which is Morgana’s Shadow which deals with a young girl who is caught kissing another girl in a forest. “It was a kiss to seal a deal”, she explains, that deal being that in exchange for a kiss she acquires the power of shapeshifting. It was essentially a story which was one long metaphor which – in conjunction with Shanty – sort of puts in to words the emotional and physical struggles of breaking free and coming to terms with gender identity and sexuality.

I’ve read that the author is currently at work on a novel and, honestly, if it is anything like some of the stories in this collection I can’t wait to read it because I’m sure, with more pages and some heavy editing, this woman is capable of something incredible. I wanted more from this, and I’m certain a novel by her will give me that.

If you love short stories, love something a little bit on the odd-side. Something magical and captivating, I think this is definitely worth giving a go.

Review: The Dead Queen of Bohemia – Jenni Fagan

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Rating – 3*

I find it very difficult to review poetry collections – mainly because it’s not something I read regularly, or feel I have many things to say on. So this review is likely to be brief as I don’t really know what to say. Now that disclaimer is out of the way, I will go on to talk about this collection briefly.

I haven’t read any of Jenni Fagan’s fiction – although I have both The Sunlight Pilgrims and The Panopticon on my shelves and I have heard rave reviews about both. However, as someone who likes to break the mould a little, I thought I would start with her poetry. This book contains her new poetry as well as her two older collections which are both now out of print.

For me, this was very hit and miss. I found a lot of it repetitive – teenage angst and drug taking can only be told in so many ways. However, some of the poems – particularly those which focus on depression – really hit a spot with me and came in to my life at exactly the right moment. Two which stand out in this category of came-in-to-my-life-at-the-right-moment are Instruction Manual for Suicidal Girls (Boys, Trolls & Troglodytes) and Hitching a Ride. Those two were ones I found myself re-reading, flicking back to, and comparing other poems in the collection to – none made it to the same level as those two for me.

On the whole, this was good. It isn’t my favourite poetry collection, but there were some shining moments for me. I can’t wait to read her prose, that much is certain!

instruction manual for suicidal girls (boys, trolls & troglodytes)

Review: Black Beauty – Anna Sewell

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Rating – 3*

Most people know the story of Black Beauty, or at least an overview of it. It’s the story of a horses life as told through his eyes. Interestingly, I always assumed this was a children’s classic, however it wasn’t intended as one. The primary purpose of this book was to induce kindness, sympathy, and understanding – particularly in the treatment of horses but I think it just applies to anything who doesn’t necessarily have a voice of its own. Not having a voice does not mean an animal does not have feeling, which I think is the take home message of this book.

It’s a very simple book, which is probably why it has ended up becoming a children’s classic. I think I would have enjoyed it much more had I actually got around to reading it when I was a child myself. The fact it’s narrated by a horse is quite a fun one and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I love a story told from an unconventional point of view, but whereas – for example – Flush by Virginia Woolf had an animal with a very mature voice, Black Beauty is told with a simple and more childlike quality. I feel that it could have had more expanding to make it a more ‘adult’ book. Instead, I found it was more a collection of moments in the life of the horse, which is perfectly fine, however it did become a little repetitive.

There were a vast array of characters, which was something which surprised me! The animals were much more well rounded than the humans, that’s for sure. Out of all the characters, the one who was most fleshed out for me was Ginger. The back story to Ginger really tugged at my heart strings!

It was a very enjoyable read though, and a nice one to read one evening as it’s quite short and easy to follow along with. I really wish I had read this when I was younger because I think I would have got so much more enjoyment out of it. I would recommend this if you haven’t read it, and maybe if you haven’t read many classics – or children’s classics at least – this would be a good one to pick up as it is quite easy to read.

Review: No Cunning Plan – Tony Robinson

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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!

Review: The Muse – Jessie Burton

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Rating – 3*

Number one, this book is beautifully designed. It is gorgeous. Noone can escape that. It doesn’t really cover much of what is on the inside but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Anyway, this book is beautiful inside and out, and I feel bad giving it a 3* review, but while the premise was amazing, and Jessie Burton can really tell a story, I just didn’t find myself as invested in this as I wanted to be.

There’s no denying it, this is an ambitious book. There were a lot of characters, and a plot that spanned decades. Odelle, our primary protagonist, was fantastic; Trinidadian born she and her friend have come to London to make a better life for themselves. She, a typist, eventually finds a job with a Miss Marjorie Quick at The Skelton Institute of art. At her friends wedding, Odelle meets a man who has a painting which needs an appraisal, so he finds her and that’s when we get the story behind the story. The story of the painting, which takes us back in time to Spain on the brink of the Civil War, and our protagonist there is Olive. The story alternates between Odelle’s experiences as an immigrant in London, trying to make her way in a world where her skin colour presents huge challenges and Olive’s story in Spain in, where most of the action takes place.

Don’t get me wrong, this book is masterful in parallels between our protagonists, Odelle and Olive. The writing is beautiful, the imagery is amazing and yeah, I loved so much of this story but, there were just too many unanswered questions and open ends for me, and I found that very unsatisfying. In parts it felt disjointed, and jumpy. I would have liked for it to maybe have slowed down in parts, and sped up in others. For me, the pace was all wrong but that’s a very personal thing. I’d liked to have known for certain what the deal was with Marjorie, and if she was who Odelle thought her to be.

All that being said, Jessie Burton in this book has proved herself to be an incredible writer. Her characters are well developed, her writing is elegant and flows beautifully, and her ability to capture human emotion is second to none. The only downfall for this, in my opinion, is the pacing and in some respects the plot. So yes, a happy 3*, bordering on 4 and I will definitely be picking up her next book!

If you’d like to purchase The Muse, consider supporting me and buying through The Book Depository: here