Review: The Falconer – Alice Thompson

044 - The Falconer

044 - The Falconer

Rating – 4*

Alice Thompson’s books have yet to disappoint me – while The Falconer is by no means one of my favourite of her books it was still amazing. I can’t believe I’m going to say these words but it had echoes of Daphne du Maurier, and I liked it.

Thompson’s books are generally small in stature but pack quite a punch. The Falconer is only just over 150 pages and I felt it was the perfect size for the content. While it tied up a lot of things, some of it was left open and I think that fits well with the atmosphere of the book. We as a reader are meant to have questions and I felt okay with that. I felt this required quite a bit of attention, but that’s not a bad thing, I just didn’t want to miss anything because it was so intricately written.

Being small, I’m not going to go too much in to the plot. But essentially this book follows a woman called Iris, who has applied under a pseudonym for a job as a personal assistant to the Undersecretary of War to find out what happened to her sister who previously had the same job as died in rather unusual circumstances. The year is 1936, and given that one of the characters is the Undersecretary of War you can expect some background happenings and undertones towards the outbreak of the Second World War.

As I alluded to previously, there are some strong similarities to not only Rebecca, but quite a lot of du Maurier’s body of work, especially in the atmosphere that Thompson has created. The similarities to Rebecca are no mistake in my opinion, it feels quite deliberate. Both books are set in large country homes and follow female protagonists trying to both fill the void and find out what happened to their predecessor who died in mysterious, unspoken circumstances. I also feel that there are echoes of Jane Eyre – which did inspire du Maurier – with the presence of The Mad Woman in the Attic. The more I sit here trying to compare, the more comparables I’m finding and frankly I love it.

Anyone who has followed my blog knows how I love du Maurier, and how I usually loathe anything that has the tagline of “echoes of du Maurier” but because this book didn’t come with that caveat I went in to it open minded and came out the other side pleasantly surprised. My only note to anyone thinking of picking this up is do it in the Autumn or Winter on a cold night under a blanket, because I think my enjoyment of it was impacted by it being 33°C outside and it sort of reduced the atmosphere of it for me!

I have a couple more Alice Thompson books left to read and I really, really cannot wait to finally get around to them.

Review: How To Be a Kosovan Bride – Naomi Hamill

043 - How To Be a Kosovan Bride

043 - How To Be a Kosovan Bride

Rating – 4*

Salt have gone and done it again. They have published a book that I find it difficult to find words for. How To Be a Kosovan Bride is an incredible feat on the authors part, and it was a compelling book to read. I wasn’t able to put it down and read it in around 2 and a half hours.

The book follows the parallel lives of two women – one is known as the Kosovan Wife, the other is known as the Returned Girl. We start the book on both of their wedding days, the Kosovan Wife ‘passing’ the virginity test, the Returned Girl not. As is hinted in her name, the Returned Girl is returned to her family and forges herself an academic life, going to university and studying English whereas the Kosovan Wife remains just that, a wife and a mother. Essentially the two women throughout the book have identities only relating to their marriage, or lack thereof. Poignantly the two women of the novel end up at a wedding as guests at the end, both observing the other and feeling longing for the life they see the other leading. The Returned Girl longing for the domesticity, and The Kosovan Wife longing for the freedom. For me as a reader who had become very invested in these characters, this was a stand out moment as for the first time the two women are named; signalling that they have both made a choice to forge their own paths and identities, and not have their identity thrust upon them due to their marriages.

Interwoven throughout is what links these two women – their writing. The Kosovan Bride is writing down a fairy tale she remembers her own grandfather telling her about The Maiden in the Box, and the Returned Girl is writing about the history of her country. These snippets of fairy tale and also brutal Kosovan history of the war are interspersed among the girls “How to…” sections, which is every other chapter. And it was so expertly done.

I was swept away in this book, I was rooting for both the women, I wanted them to find their own paths and happiness. I also found the insight in to a history I know nothing about – quite shamefully – really interesting. Hamill has clearly done her research, and from what I’ve read about her this was inspired by humanitarian work she does in Kosovo and in reading this book you can tell how much love she has for the country.

Overall I loved this book, and I loved the experience of reading it. Salt as a publisher never fail to disappoint me!

Review: Forgotten Women: The Scientists – Zing Tsjeng

035 - Forgotten Women The Scientists

035 - Forgotten Women The Scientists

Rating – 4*

I am a sucker for any book which covers feminism, forgotten females in history, female scientists and contains beautiful illustration. This covers all four of those points off nicely and I absolutely loved this book.

I judge any book about female scientists through history on it’s section on Rosalind Franklin. Anyone who knows me will know just how passionate I am about the acknowledgement of that woman and her contribution to the discovery of the double helix of DNA. Naturally I read the section on her in the middle of my local Waterstones and from that moment I knew I had to have this book. I started reading it on the bus home.

As someone who has read several books and essays on this subject in the past, I had heard of a significant number of these women but I never tire of reading different takes on their lives and learning new things about them. If I were to ever put my pen to paper and write a book, I would make it one like this. A book full of inspirational, incredible, intelligent women who made a difference to the world.

Each woman has 3 to 4 pages dedicated to her story, and a beautiful illustration by one of around a dozen (female) artists. Everything about this book is beautiful; it’s just a beautiful object and is now happily sitting in and amongst other books on feminism, gender studies and women’s history like it on my shelf.

The book I would compare this to is Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky. The only difference being this is a more in depth look at a lot of the same women as Women in Science is primarily aimed at children. I’d say this is a must read for anyone out there interested in women’s history, history of science and medicine or even just short, snappy and fun biographies akin to things like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.

Review: In Pursuit of Memory – Joseph Jebelli

024 - In Pursuit of Memory

024 - In Pursuit of Memory

Rating – 4*

Happy Friday folks, and today I am treating you to another Wellcome Prize longlisted book review. This time it is In Pursuit of Memory – the biography of a disease which affects far too many of us in one way or another – Alzheimer’s.

This book is both a personal account, the authors own motivations and reasoning to the research in to this subject and also a definitive overview of where research is now and what life looks like with Alzheimer’s disease. His own motivations into researching this subject is his beloved grandfather who was showing the early symptoms when the author was just 12. It is this what motivated him to become who he is today, one of the most respected Alzheimer’s disease experts

For me this contained just the right amount of history, science, and personal opinion. There was a good balance of all three and I never found myself bored. I also found that while there was quite a bit of science in here it wasn’t overwhelming so someone who just has a personal interest in the topic would be able to follow this and learn from it quite easily. The personal stories, not just of the authors family but of other families he has spoken to in the making of this book, touched me. Everyone has a very different story with this disease, and it makes me very sad that we still don’t know very much about it.

What I did find fascinating was the more population based genetics behind Alzheimer’s – for example people in Iceland don’t seem to develop it due to a mutation in their DNA. The close knit community which descends from a very small gene pool have pretty much eradicated the heritable genetic factor which is known to cause the disease. Whereas there’s communities in India and Columbia where the inverse is true, the small gene pool has resulted in nearly everyone in the family or the community as a whole having the mutation which increases likelihood of succumbing to Alzheimer’s. I find things like that absolutely incredible!

I think it’s the balance of the emotional and personal side and the scientific side which makes this book so special. I think had I read it a little bit after With the End in Mind I may have rated it 5* – because it is a fantastic book, but that was still weighing heavily on my thoughts and probably impacted how I felt about this book.

Definitely worth a read if you have any interest in Alzheimer’s, memory, or general science non-fiction!

 

Review: Little Dorrit – Charles Dickens

021 - Little Dorrit

021 - Little Dorrit

Rating – 4*

After Britain being covered in snow last week, and not being able to go to work because I had 2 foot of the stuff outside, it seemed only appropriate to dig a Dickens’ novel off of my shelf. Cold snaps like that, I thought, are very Dickensian, which is why I picked this up. When it’s cold out I always feel more inclined to read a classic, something about them is cozy and comforting, no matter what the subject and I felt like a big book after reading so many shorter ones last month, so I chose Little Dorrit.

Little Dorrit follows the intertwining stories of Amy ‘Little’ Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. Amy was born in Marshalsea Prison – a notorious Debtors Prison. Amy is the youngest of three children – and as with all books by Dickens we get a real insight to the entire family and all their faults (of which there are many!) As with a lot of Dickens’ female protagonists she is pure of heart, but while she is quite ‘innocent’ and childlike I do think she is actually one of his more rounded female characters because she isn’t absolutely flawless. Arthur returns to London, after living abroad with his father who has recently died, to live with his disabled mother – as with the Dorrit family, you get a real insight in to all of the characters from his mother to the maids and each of them, while a little cartoonish, have their own personality.

I really enjoyed this. I found the development of Amy believable, I found the relationships between the characters believable (to a degree) but I also found the ‘moral’ of the story a good one. Money doesn’t always buy happiness, and I really liked this take on it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a character like Amy in, and I think that’s why I’m slowly growing to love Dickens – his characters are the other side of historical society and the voices that rarely got heard. I think I understand why his books are considered classics, and why they were just as loved when they were published as they are now.

The reason I gave this book 4 stars is that while I liked it, it didn’t grab me quite as much as Bleak House did. I feel it unfair to compare every Dickens novel to Bleak House but I find it really hard not to! It’s up there, it is, it was a blooming good read and I’m glad I finally got around to it. It just didn’t quite meet the 5 star mark for me!

Review: The Butchering Art – Dr Lindsey Fitzharris

014 - The Butchering Art

014 - The Butchering Art

Rating – 4*

This is the first of many reviews for books on the Wellcome Prize 2018 Longlist. It definitely isn’t for the squeamish reader as it is the very gruesome biography of Joseph Lister – the father of modern antiseptics.

Often the Victorian era is idealised, romanticised, the reality is that you were going to die, very young, of something that was most certainly preventable. It says something when surgery in your dining room was less likely to kill you than surgery in a hospital. In a hospital surgeons would wear the same clothes between patients, use instruments covered in blood, guts and gore from the previous surgery, they didn’t even think twice about using instruments they’d just used on an autopsy on a (still) living patient. Cross contamination and sepsis were significant causes of death – and leeches couldn’t fix everything. Surgery in the 1800s was a matter of speed – there wasn’t anaesthetic and things had to be done quickly to avoid excess blood loss and trauma, and of those who survived the majority then died because of post-operative infection.

Lister, as a young surgeon, saw a problem and decided he wanted to do something to try and fix it. His antiseptic theories were groundbreaking, and most certainly unpopular. He spent is career building the argument, and in the end even with evidence people were still against him. The backlash he faced seems ridiculous now – in a society which is so germ averse, with antibacterial hand wash on every wall in a hospital and most of us carrying it in a bag! But just 150 years ago it was reality, and he saved so many lives because he persevered.

Medical history isn’t something I can honestly say I’ve read about, obviously I know it’s there, and I knew of Joseph Lister and his importance but actually picking a book up about it is not something I would have done without the Wellcome Prize longlist. Ultimately I’m really glad I read this – Joseph Lister was an incredible man on a mission, and has changed all of our lives because of it.

Dr Lindsey Fitzharris is a compelling story teller, that much is sure. This could have been a very, very dry book but it wasn’t and I think it’s because it was quite a personable account – rather than reading like a textbook it just reads like a biography but at the same time I feel I learnt a lot from it. I’ll definitely be recommending this to my stronger-stomached friends!

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

010 - Odd Girl Out

010 - Odd Girl Out

Rating – 4*

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

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

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

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

Review: Felix Holt, The Radical – George Eliot

004 - Felix Holt

004 - Felix Holt

Rating: 4*

It’s no secret that I think George Eliot is one of the most incredible female authors of all time, and Felix Holt: The Radical only solidifies my feelings. It was the last full-length Eliot work I had to read, and while it was by no means my favourite of her books it was an enjoyable read, and very relevant in today’s political climate – something which I really wasn’t expecting.

This book is set around the Reform Act of 1832 and the local politics of the fictional town of Treby Magna. If there’s one thing Eliot can do it is capture a small town absolutely perfectly – she is so good at writing a novel which focuses in and around a whole community, with several people at the forefront of attention. As with Adam Bede though, the titular character isn’t really the main character (nor is he the most interesting), in fact as with all Eliot novels it is the female characters that take the crown as the most interesting character. Mrs Holt and Mrs Transome – the mothers of two of our main, male protagonists, are far more interesting than their respective sons. And Esther is, as with most of Eliot’s young, female protagonists, a young woman who want’s independence – she’s highly educated, some would argue too educated, for a preacher’s daughter in a small town.

Aside from it being a character study of life in a small town on the brink of political change, it does bring the question of do the electorate always get things right in to a Victorian setting. Obviously, that makes the book highly relevant to even today’s political climate – what with the result the electorates in the US and the UK in the last 18 months! Much as with today, the political climate is all over the place in this novel – the working class are frustrated and don’t agree with the ‘establishment’ but have no means to change it. Which is where radicalism came in to play. Felix Holt is one of our radicals, and he is an interesting character. He believes in empowering the working class from the bottom – starting with education. The coverage of the Reform Act is such a poignant reminder of how lucky so many of us are to have a vote. The Reform Act gave power to the people, not just land-owning, white men. Although it did still take 100 years for women to get an equal vote, education and the ability to vote was a start.

It is by no means her best book, and of her novels it definitely falls bottom-to-middle in my list of favourites but it was actually one of her most thought provoking for me personally. It falls in the middle of her career, and was succeeded by (arguably) two of her best books Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda – and that’s very clear for me when reading it.

So, if it wasn’t clear, while it was far from perfect, I can comfortably put it up there close, but not quite equalling, my two favourites – Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede. I still want to re-read Middlemarch, because having read the rest of her works I do feel that that book will have a better impact on me. I will be doing a whole spotlight on my beloved George Eliot in the not so distant future, so if you’re interested, look out for that!

Review: How Not to be a Boy – Robert Webb

002 - How Not to be a Boy

002 - How Not to be a Boy

Rating – 4*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Parsnips, Buttered – Joe Lycett

001 - Parsnips, Buttered

001 - Parsnips, Buttered

Rating – 4*

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

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

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

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