Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

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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

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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!

Review: Bleak House – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 5*

I don’t even know where to start with this book. It was a beast but my goodness it was an incredible one. I had been putting it off for so long, especially after my last Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) really disappointed me, and a reading slump left me very intimidated as this book is over 1000 pages. But I don’t know what I was scared of. I read this in under a week, and also managed to watch the entirety of the 15 part BBC adaptation as I went along – which was also amazing!

Bleak House is alternatively narrated by the orphan Esther Summerson, and an unknown third person. Personally I preferred the tone of Esther’s narrative and found it much easier to read than those parts which focused more on the court case which is ultimately the crux of this book and the thread which tied all the characters together. However, for me it was Esther’s development through the book, and her personal growth, was actually the most interesting part of the story and I felt she tied the story together more than the court case ever did.

The plot is so complex and intricate, there are stories within stories which are all wrapped up beautifully by the end. The court case itself is pretty insane, and has been going on so long that at least one generation of the Jarndyce family has expired while waiting for a judgement, and not even the lawyers have any grasp on its intricacies. As for characters, not one felt surplus to requirements for me. Yes, there were a lot of characters but they all had their moments of importance and all had their imperfections and flaws which made them stand out – some more than others it has to be said! What I liked was the two different views you get of some of the characters from both streams of the narration, it’s quite a simple thing really but I found it really added to the depth of character for me.

To sum it up, I adored this book. And I when reading it I knew I had to watch the TV series. BBC adaptations never fail to take my breath away and this one was no exception. The cast is incredible, the way the story is put together on screen just made me appreciate the book all the more. Not only that, it was visually beautiful! I would seriously recommend reading and watching the series simultaneously as I for one feel it made my reading the book less daunting! Also, it’s very good to break up a burst of reading with a bit of period drama.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself rereading this book before the year is out. It’s amazing, it blew my mind quite frankly and I cannot wait to read more Dickens! Definitely don’t be put off by the size of this book, please, because it’s a masterpiece. Naturally, this is a 5* book. No doubts.

Review: Autumn – Ali Smith

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Rating – 5*

Ali Smith will forever be one of my favourite authors, this book has only emphasised that. I don’t think I can be coherent when it comes to Ali’s books, all my thoughts just jumble and make no sense whatsoever. Her writing is incredible and resonates with me in a way I can’t explain.

Autumn is a novel which is so present and I can only wish I read it when I first bought it – when it was even more recent. Just, how exactly it was possible for Ali Smith to create a full, rich novel involving Britain after Brexit in exactly the time it was taking place I don’t know. But it’s amazing.

This book, in it’s most basic form, is the story of a deep friendship between a young girl – Elisabeth – and an old man – Daniel. The story is told nearly entirely in the form of flashbacks. Stories within stories. Stories about race and identity, stories about art, feminism, sexuality, women, mothers sisters. Stories about a pop artist named Pauline Boty. Yet, ultimately it is the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel told through all these stories.

As expected with Ali Smith, it is beautifully written. It manages to be both thought provoking and hilarious, sad and happy. It made me think, it made me laugh, there were nods to so many other books, to art, it’s so layered I think every time I read this (because I will re-read it, it’s Ali Smith) I will find new things, new layers to the story and that is something I find pretty damn exciting, and something which will make me want to reread this book.

This year is off to a very good start on the reading front. It seems the books I had hoped to read in the last quarter of the year have so far been amazing, and it makes me glad I took a break from reading if only to enjoy them properly.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

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Rating – 5*

After nearly 4 months of not reading, I am so glad this was the first book I picked up after a slump, and the first of a new year. One of the last books I read before my slump was A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and it is, quite honestly, one of my favourite books of all time (as my review will attest to). I had high expectations for this, but also trepidation that I wouldn’t love it as much, but that fear was unfounded as I adored this.

A Closed and Common Orbit picks up where the previous book left off, but this time we’re following Lovelace – or Sidra as she chooses to be known now she has a body – and Pepper. We follow two stories, Sidra in the ‘present’ who is adapting to life in her body and we follow Jane, a girl from some years in the past who is part of a bigger picture which she doesn’t even know exists. These two threads of the story tie together in a very messy, but wonderful way and I found myself staying up until 2am to finish this book because I didn’t want to put it down, I needed to know how it was going to tie together and end.

This book is ultimately about humanity, and what it means to be, learning how to live and find your place. I got comfort from this book I didn’t even know I needed. While the situation is completely non-realistic, the experiences, the feelings, the thought processes they’re all relatable and applicable to day to day life. There were moments in this book which, much like it’s predecessor, took my breath away – it filled me with joy and tore me to pieces. Ultimately though, it was beautiful.

Becky Chambers writing is incredible. I can’t put words down to describe it but I just love the way she writes, her writing connects with me. This world she has created for these books is beautiful, and it’s a world I can immerse myself in as she writes it so vividly.

This was a beautifully written and fantastically diverse book, and there’d better be a third book which brings the two sets of characters together because I don’t want this to end here. There’s still so much to give, so much I want to learn about these characters and this world.

If you haven’t read A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, read it. Then read this in close succession because it’s wonderful. I seriously don’t think I can recommend these books enough to people. And I really, really can’t think of a better way to have started off my reading in 2017 than with this book.

Review: When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard – Megan Beech

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Rating – 4*

I have said it before, and will undoubtedly repeat myself many times, I am by no means an expert on poetry. What I do know however is that I absolutely adored this poetry collection and would very, very highly recommend this.

Megan Beech is a performance poet; sometimes performance poetry just does not translate well when written down and read, this collection however translates to the written word beautifully. I found getting in to the rhythm of these really quite easy, it sometimes took a bit of slowing down to find that rhythm but it wasn’t in any way impossible. This easy rhythm made Beech’s voice come across clearly for me, although I am very aware that other people have struggled in finding this.

The poems themselves really resonated with me. Her point of view is one I really identified with and I found so much of myself and my own opinion in her words. What she was just saying sung to my soul, however cheesy that sounds. Her words are fearless, and it was both beautifully poetic and yet raw, exposed and quite brash. On the whole, I’d say it was amazing – and very, very passionate. One of my favourites in the collection was possibly Dadverts; actually it’s one of the more quiet pieces, it’s slower, but it really stood out for me.

I was torn as to whether I could give this 4 or 5 stars. It’s definitely the best poetry collection I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and one I will be revisiting. I loved Kate Tempest’s work, but if I’m honest this was better (or at least resonated more with me individually). I’m going to be keeping my eyes peeled for more by Megan Beech because this woman is amazing. Really, give this a go because it’s wonderful.

Review: A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

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Rating – 5*

I’m a little late to this party, mainly because I really thought this book wasn’t for me. I didn’t think it would float my kayak at all – how damn wrong I was. This was entirely my cup of tea and I have fallen in love with it. It’s so utterly, and completely, perfect and it is definitely up there with my favourite books of the year.

To put my love of this book in to context, it is the first fiction book I have happily given 5* since I read Adam Bede in May. This is up there with my love of George Eliot. That says something. It is simply incredible and I’m really finding it hard to quantify my love of it.

In this book we have the most incredible characters, you could say that the main character is Rosemary, and while she is the one we focus on initially this book is about so much more than her. Her point of view is more to make the entire world that Becky Chambers has created here accessible to us as readers, as Rosemary is seeing it all for the first time too. It’s so much more than Rosemary, as I said, there are so many wonderful characters who are so diverse – in race, beliefs, sexual preferences, everything – and incredibly it deals with some of the biggest issues in the ‘real’ world and spins them on a cosmic level with spaceships and aliens. And on the subject of sexual preference, I was just overjoyed to find a book like this – we have a whole spectrum of love in this book and it just made me so happy I could weep, not just romantic love either, but the love of friends, family, colleagues. This book is truly something special.

And the plot, I loved it. I really did. While all the action is going on, we’re learning about our characters and getting insights in to their lives and families. I loved learning about the characters pasts, and their species. All of the development of character is so well intertwined with the plot I just can’t separate the two really. While this is plot driven, it’s also one of the most intense character studies I’ve read.

One thing that stood out to me most is Sizzix’s feather family – the concept that your family consists of the people who impact on your life, that you make your own family. That is really the core of this book, it doesn’t matter how dysfunctional it is they’re family. And that, that alone, I loved.

I loved Sizzix full stop, actually. I loved all the characters, in their own way, but she was definitely my favourite. I have a thing for Lizard Women From The Dawn of Time and Their Wives (yeah, reading this I couldn’t help but get Vastra/Jenny vibes from Doctor Who).

So, to summarise, even if you don’t think this is your bag read it anyway because it’s amazing. Seriously amazing. If you like Vastra and Jenny in Doctor Who, read it. If you enjoyed one, or both, of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, read it. But my words just don’t do it justice, my comparisons are pretty shoddy, it is truly a work of Science-Fiction Greatness.

If you haven’t already worked it out, this book is firmly among my favourites ever now. Definitely a 5* read, and I urge you to pop to your library, use a book token, pay for it with real money, download it with an audible credit, whatever… because it’s amazing. And finding out that there is a sort-of-sequel coming out in October, you bet I’m there because I’m really excited to see more of this spanning world that Becky Chambers created.

Review: Animal – Sara Pascoe

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Rating – 5*

I picked this up because it was the July book for my book club. I went in to it relatively blind, I didn’t know what it was about and I’m not really a massive fan of Sara’s comedy. so it wouldn’t have been a book I picked up if it wasn’t for that push. I chose to listen to this as an audiobook as I had some credits floating on Audible and I would highly recommend that!

So, the thing that surprised me most about this book is I liked it more than How to Be a Woman by Catlin Moran. Going in to it I had no idea that it would be even comparable to that book, but I would say that anyone who enjoyed that book would definitely enjoy this. It is both brutally honest and very funny, I loved that combination. It is also a very light book, in spite of quite dense evolutionary theory in it, it is very easy to get through and because of that I would say it would be a fantastic place for anyone to start with feminist literature (and it is definitely suitable for younger teenagers, something How to Be a Woman definitely isn’t in my opinion).

There are little nuggets of observation, or autobiographical points, which are seamlessly interwoven with facts about the female body and the evolution of it. And, while a little dubious, the evolutionary psychology studies she has used in this book are very, very interesting. It’s not a subject I was even aware of prior to reading this, and while there are significant flaws in some of the studies and most of them are matters of opinion, they are so bloody interesting! I didn’t always agree with the pseudo-science that some of them appeared to be, but they were nonetheless interesting points.

After reading this I have a new love for Sara. I found this book laugh out loud funny in parts. I really wish I could go back in time and give this to my 14 or 15 year old self because I, undoubtedly, would have found it so eye opening and affirming when I was going through a period of significant self confidence issues and I really do think this would have been a bible when put in my hands.

If you’d like to buy this book, support my blog and purchase through the book depository here

 

 

Review: Cheer Up Love – Susan Calman

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Rating – 5*

If you don’t know who Susan Calman is, go no further in this review and have a google, find a clip on YouTube – she’s hilarious. She’s appeared on numerous UK TV panel shows including QI, Mock the Week, and (my personal favourite) Have I Got News For You. She’s also does a lot of radio work (Susan Calman is Convicted). When I heard she was writing a book I immediately knew I had to get my hands on it and it did not let me down, in fact it is possibly one of the best books I’ve read all year. I chose to listen to this as an audiobook, and I highly recommend that to everyone, but I loved it so much I immediately went and purchased a physical copy so I could read passages to people.

This book is about depression, but while brutally honest about the experience of living with The Crab of Hate (as Susan so beautifully names it), it is truly one of the most hilarious books I have read. I laughed until I hurt listening to this. It was poignant, uplifting, intensely relatable too. And as for a book to explain depression? I would recommend this over Reasons to Stay Alive – for me, this was immensely more powerful. I’m aware that saying that is very high praise, given how loved Reasons to Stay Alive is. But for me, what that book lacked this book contained in abundance, and it had so much more on top of that.

I feel this is a book which has to be experienced, I have already recommended it to several friends and will be suggesting it to more! It is honestly one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read lately. If you’re unsure as to whether an audiobook is for you, just give the first 5 minutes a go on Audible because I promise you it’s worth it!

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Review: Adam Bede – George Eliot

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Rating – 5*

Adam Bede was Eliot’s first published novel and that youth in her writing is tangible throughout. But like most debut novels, what it lacked in literary rigour, it made up for with passion in the writing. This was, I felt, a novel which the author put her heart in to and I really, really enjoyed it. The more I read of Eliot, the more I love her work, and I found it very difficult to find fault with this because I just love every word.

It has echoes of Far From the Madding Crowd in the start – maybe because it’s a quiet farming community – and pre-dates it by 20 years. For me, I preferred Eliot’s take on the quiet farming town life to Hardy’s, Eliot was a lot more brutal in plot and her characters were far superior. While Adam is the titular character of this novel, Hetty Sorrel is definitely equally as much of a main character, and the side characters are equally as rich and full of life – something which I have found a theme across all of the work of Eliot’s I have read so far.

The plot is quite sparse in the first half, it is instead full of life and the hustle and bustle of everyday village life. We follow the hard-working Adam, and he’s quite a dull man, but is diligent and, unfortunately for him, madly in love with the narcissistic Hetty – who is aware of his feelings but does not reciprocate. Hetty has longings for the finer things in life and desires to get away from the village; this is a common theme among books of the era and I imagine it was a (sadly) common theme in reality. Hetty was definitely the shining show of this book, even though intensely dislikeable in terms of how she treats Adam, I empathised with her and felt her pains, especially in the second half. If it wasn’t for the first half, where as a reader you build a relationship with the people of this village, that intense building of character made the second half hit me, as a reader, so much harder. I don’t want to spoil it, so I urge you to be patient if you decide to try this and work your way through the slow burn of character building in the first 300 or so pages.

One thing I’m noticing about Eliot’s work is her focus on religion – in Daniel Deronda she focused heavily on Judaism. In this book, she focuses in on the Methodist faith with the character of Dinah, and in part Adam’s brother Seth. I find the insights in to religion in different periods of history really interesting, and while some people found this book a little preachy I actually found it really interesting.

While not as enormous as Daniel Derdonda, or indeed Middlemarch, this book is nonetheless incredible for very different reasons. I find it hard to do anything but give a George Eliot book 5* now, I really do. So naturally, this was a 5* read. After a really pretty bad beginning with Middlemarch (which I must reread this Summer, after reading nearly all the rest of her work this year!) George Eliot has fast become one of my favourite authors of all time – and I intend to finish her bibliography this Summer and do a bit of a spotlight on her.

I leave you with parting words: do not judge this book by its cover because – frankly – this edition is hideous; just do not let that detract from what is inside.

Purchase this book on The Book Depository