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

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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: 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: 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.

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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! 

 

Review: Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

037 - Crime and Punishment

Rating – 5*

Trying to compose a review for this book has been difficult because it is so momentous, and so fantastic, I’m struggling to find words. Finishing this book felt like an achievement, there’s not many books I can honestly say that about (Bleak House, Anna Karenina and The Count of Monte Cristo are the only others which come to mind, all of which are nearly twice the length of this).

I have to admit, I was a little scared going in to this book. It’s not that it was the longest book I’ve read – it was 520ish pages. It wasn’t even that it was translated. I think, for me, this book just has such a place on the literary cannon that I felt scared that I wasn’t going to like it.

The first time I heard of this book I was about 14 or 15, I was watching a TV show on the BBC called My Life In Books and Sue Perkins mentioned Crime and Punishment as one of her favourites. Now I love that woman and I knew, from that day, I was going to read that book. I tried, when I was younger, but I didn’t have the patience for it. I thought it was pretentious and hard work, so I threw it aside. Until this month where I picked it up and could scarcely put it down.

Crime and Punishment is simply the best character study I’ve read. Raskolnikov, our main character, is a young man, formerly a law student who was unable to continue studying due to the poverty he finds himself in. In order to remove himself from that poverty, he commits a crime and this book follows the fall out of that. As a reader you follow him in to the darkest pits of despair, the punishment is the mental torture that he finds himself going through after committing the crime. Raskonikov is on the brink of insanity for a large portion of this book, and as a reader that’s a very intense place to be. However, even though what he does is heinous, as a reader I still felt compelled to have empathy for him, he was not inherently a bad man he just made a bad choice and in spite of it all I was rooting for him.

This book is about so much more than Raskolnikov, his sister is one of my new favourite supporting characters in a book. Dunya seems on the surface to be meek and mild, but she’s pretty amazing in her own right and I’d have loved more from her perspective if I’m honest. Aside from his sister there are numerous interesting characters, who there is such depth to that they just jump from a page. The names do get a bit complicated – some go by 3 or 4 different names, but I soon found myself adapting and recognising each by their personality more than anything else.

There is a lot of navel gazing in this book, a lot of it is philosophical thoughts or long monologues but I found myself actually enjoying that. Some probably would say it’s a bit pretentious, 14/15 year old me certainly did! But I loved it, and honestly it’s one of the most readable classics I’ve read in a long time – I found myself constantly wanting to read “just one more chapter” – but I paced myself a bit so I could properly process what I was reading and enjoy it to it’s maximum.

I think a lot of my enjoyment has to be due to the translation because this flowed so, so well for me. I am intending to read War and Peace over the next couple of months, and this book has me so excited for that because it’s done by the same translators and I really love what they’ve done with Dostoyevsky, I can’t wait to see how they handle Tolstoy. Based on my enjoyment of this I may have to go back and re-read Anna Karenina.

Naturally, this was a 5* read. And it has actually changed my perspectives on some of the other books I’ve read this month! I honestly think this is going to be one of those books which stays with me for a long time; I know I’ll be thinking of it quite a lot over the coming weeks!

Also, just a side note, if anyone is interested in the TV show with Sue Perkins that I mentioned above, it is still available (at time of writing) on BBC iPlayer. So if you are able to get BBC iPlayer, it can be accessed here and she begins talking about Crime and Punishment at around 6:55.

Review: My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier

034 - My Cousin Rachel

Rating – 5*

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you will know of my unyielding love of Daphne du Maurier. She’s probably my favourite author of all time. This is one of the few of her books that I have read more than once, though my first – and only previous read – was at least 6 years ago! As a result, rereading this was like reading a whole new book and I absolutely loved it.

Our narrator, Philip, was orphaned at a young age and grew up with his Uncle Ambrose running a family farm on the Cornish coast. Due to his ailing health as he ages, Ambrose spends Winter abroad and it is one Winter, in Florence, that he meets Rachel. From there, we end up back in Cornwall and we go down a path of suspicion, intrigue, and quite honestly some madness.

I don’t want to give too much away, because the beauty of du Maurier’s work is the mystery and the intrigue that’s there, it’s that what keeps you turning the pages. Come the end, you still don’t really know what happened and it is up to you as a reader to decide what the truth is. Daphne du Maurier masters the unreliable, and at times dislikeable, narrator in this book. Philip is misogynistic, he is rash and harsh at times but throughout it all I did feel empathy for him and I did connect with him.

The titular character, much like in Rebecca, remains a bit of an enigma. Even at the end you never know her true motives, what she’s done, what she is intending to do. She is described as petite and delicate, but she can command a room better than any of the men in this book! At times I loved her, at times I loathed her, and by the end of the book I still don’t know which of those feelings is overriding.

I never thought I’d say this, but I may have enjoyed this more than Rebecca. Throughout the entirety of the novel there is tension and suspense which I have loved in all of du Maurier’s work. The ambiguity is also there, which is something I felt was mastered in this book compared to Rebecca – which while good did have undertones which if you look hard enough point you in the right direction. As a reader I was constantly swaying between theories, I didn’t know which characters to believe, which to doubt and that was happening throughout the book on the basis of individual sentences and intonations.

Honestly, this book is a masterpiece from my point of view. I’m maybe a bit bias in that du Maurier can rarely do wrong in my eyes, but this book had me on tenterhooks and I read it in 2 sittings. I could have read it in one, had I not needed to sleep. I adored this – and it has me so excited to finish reading du Maurier’s bibliography.

Review: Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

028 - Tipping the Velvet

Rating – 5*

I was having a bit of a reading slump towards the end of April, so I decided it was the perfect time to have a reread. I haven’t reread a book in ages even though I have a pile of books which I want to get around to rereading it isn’t something I do a lot. Anyway, when deciding what to reread, for me, this was an easy choice.

Tipping the Velvet has always been a book that I enjoyed, but it is definitely one I enjoyed more on this third read than I ever did before. When I read it initially I must have been about 14 or 15 and a lot of the nuances, and even the plot, went over my head. I was young, naive, not quite in touch with my own sexuality yet and while the book was eye opening, I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of it (or even the profound affect it had on me at the time). It wasn’t until I reread it when I was around 18 or 19 that I probably understood more of it, that I realised what this book actually made me realise about myself – it was more eyeopening the second time than the first. Now, on this third read, I am looking at it through completely different lenses and I love it so much more than I did the two previous reads.

The main character in this is Nancy – or Nan – and we follow her over the course of several years of her life. At the start she works in her family business, shelling oysters in Kent and becomes entranced by a performer at the theatre – Kitty Butler. Kitty’s act is that of going on stage dressed as a man, and Nan finds herself going back night after night just to see Kitty. From here, Nan’s life takes an interesting turn down to the theatreland of London – she has ups and downs but every event she lives through shapes her for the next and I absolutely adore that aspect of her character development. The person she is at the end of this book is such a reach from the girl she was at the start, and you know every step of what got her there and I love that. All loose ends are tied up in the last chapter – anything left unresolved is very neatly resolved, it is a little cliche how it all works out but, frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Honestly, this is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s only rereading it now, at this point in my life, that I realise how profoundly impacting it has been on me over the years. Yes, I probably do have some emotional connection to it but that is most definitely one of the best things about rereading a book, remembering the feelings and thoughts you had on previous reads but also finding new things, finding that new connection.

I love this book, I urge anyone to read this book. It’s beautiful, it’s historical, it’s just damn fantastic. I can’t remember the last time I lost myself in a book like this – I did actually read it in two sittings (just a few days apart) and I laid up until 1am to finish it. That hasn’t happened for so long, and it’s made me so excited about reading again. May, I feel, is going to be a good month!

Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

022 - When Breath Becomes Air

Rating – 5*

I was anxious going in to this book. I’ve heard and read so, so many reviews about this and I had no doubts that it was going to be a book which was going to break my heart just a little bit. Those thoughts were right, and this book was amazing – there really aren’t many other words I can use to describe it.

For anyone who isn’t aware, this book is a memoir. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon, but he was also a English Literature graduate, and held a Masters in the history of medicine before he went on to med school. His writing overlays both the love of literature, and the love of science and medicine, beautifully. The two are rarely combined, but as someone who does love both, I really appreciated who he mixed his knowledge of science and medicine with ideas and thoughts from literature.

At the age of 36, just before he completed his residency as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One day he was the doctor, the next day he was the patient. This book is his story, the journey he and his family took after that day he was diagnosed. I felt when reading this book that I knew him personally, that I went on this exhausting journey with him.

This book is unfinished; it ends with an epilogue written by his wife – Lucy – because he sadly died before he had a chance to fully complete this. While I’m sad that this is technically unfinished, I felt the note it ended on with his wife’s words, summarised the whole book. It wasn’t until I read the epilogue that I was moved to tears.

Kalanithi, from reading this book, was a caring, intelligent, genuine man who wanted to do good by people. He saw patients as people – not numbers or statistics – and I think a lot of people in medical professions could learn something from that alone.

I urge people to read this book, I read it in 1 sitting on a Sunday afternoon and I’m so glad I finally did.

Review: The Waves – Virginia Woolf

008-the-waves

Rating – 5*

This book is a masterpiece. It’s taken me a couple of days to actually try and find words to write this review because, honestly, this is a book you have to experience and I know that I will not be able to do it justice.

I tried to read it before, last Summer I believe, and we just didn’t get along. I wasn’t enjoying it, I wasn’t in the place where I could lose myself in the pages. This isn’t a book you can dip in and out of, in my opinion, it’s a book you have to let yourself get lost in. As it stands, I read it in two sittings. I tried reading it on my commute to work, but I ended up rereading those passages when I curled up to read the remainder of the book. Woolf is a writer who demands your full attention, and that just cannot be given while sitting on a bus.

In it’s most basic form, this is the story of a group of friends; told through their individual thought processes from childhood, through marriage and children, to middle age and ultimately death. Each of them has a distinct voice, and tells of moments of their lives. Snippets of time, some of which overlap, some don’t. It’s so difficult to put this book in to words because, honestly, I’m not sure I have any of the right ones.

More than anything, the writing is what captivated me. It’s poetic, lyrical and has rhythm. The more I read the more I could decipher the ebb and flow of it, yes there are many references to waves and water but, truly, for me the story itself is told in waves and it is just magnificent. If I can one day write a sentence as well as Virginia Woolf, just one sentence, I will die happy. I want half of this book tattooed on me, but if I were to pick one sentence from this book, one sentence to encourage you to try it. It would be this:

There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, ‘Consume me’

I want to read this book again to fully appreciate it. I want to read it in one sitting, not two. I want to completely immerse myself in the lives of the 6 people who tell this story. Woolf for me is an an author whose books have to be read more than once to fully appreciate, and while I appreciated this, while I loved this book, I know that should I read it again and allow it to consume me, I will love it even more.

Give Woolf a go, people. Please. Don’t be daunted by stream of consciousness!