Review: To Be a Machine – Mark O’Connell

025 - To Be a Machine

025 - To be a Machine

Rating – 2*

Another day, another book on the Wellcome prize long list! Today it’s To Be a Machine – a book which is essentially about how technology may one day help us avoid death. I don’t really know how to describe this book as, well, I didn’t really enjoy it!

Transhumanism is at its core the art of extending life using technology to do so – ideas like uploading our consciousness on to data chips, and cryogenic freezing are just the tip of the iceberg (if you’ll pardon the poor taste pun there!) of what this subject encompasses. If I’m entirely honest, I’m not all that interested in what this book was talking about which is maybe why I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

I feel that this book could have been an essay outlining the key points – I found the interviews with people who are very much in to the transhumanism movement a bit eye roll worthy, and I found the writing often crude and jarring. I’ve no issue with swearing or anything of the sort in context, but in this book I just didn’t feel it suited the tone. It was just over 250 pages and, honestly, it could have been something a lot more profound if it were half the length.

For me this just wasn’t something I enjoyed reading. I know a lot of people have really loved this book based on the goodreads reviews, but it just didn’t quite hit the right mark for me. I also feel that as I get further through the Wellcome longlist it’s becoming harder to not compare books to each other – and compared to some of those I have read recently this is a little short of the mark.

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 || Shortlist Predictions

WBP Shortlist Predictions

On Tuesday the shortlist for the Wellcome Book Prize will be announced – as I have read 10 of the books, am part way through the 11th and may or may not get to the 12th I wanted to take some time out of a snowy Saturday afternoon to discuss my feelings on all of the books longlisted, and make a prediction of what Tuesday might hold.

I for one love these types of posts, I love reading them, I love watching people on YouTube make similar content, and I’ve never read enough of a prize longlist to partake in the discussion. This is going to be a long one, but I’m not even going to say sorry.

Reading this years longlist has been an absolute joy and a pleasure and something I will definitely be doing in the future years. I absolutely can’t wait to see what decision the judges make this year because whatever they pick as the winner, it won’t have been picked easily. Books focusing around biosciences and health are becoming increasingly popular and in this ever growing genre I think that it’s going to become harder and harder to narrow it down to 12 books, never mind to pick just one book from that pile to “crown”.

The 12 books on the longlist this year were all amazing in their own way, even if I didn’t enjoy them myself. However, for me the shortlist is quite clear – but I’d be happy if I managed to get even 2 right. I’m going to list the books on my dream shortlist by author surname:-

  • Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo
  • The Butchering Art – Lindsey Fitzharris
  • In Persuit of Memory – Joseph Jebelli
  • With The End in Mind – Kathryn Mannix
  • Behave – Robert Sapolsky
  • The Vaccine Race – Meredith Wadman

I think a few of them are likely to be wrong – for me this year the fiction wasn’t as strong as in previous years – and often a lot of the links were tenuous. I also didn’t particularly enjoy any of the memoirs on the list which was a bit disheartening for me as someone who usually enjoys a memoir! It wasn’t that they weren’t interesting, it was that in more than one case I found that I was confused as to why they were on the longlist and they felt out of place.

For me though, the 6 books I have listed above stand above the rest. Stay With Me was one of those books that  I wasn’t expecting to love as much as I did, I and it’s stuck with me in the 9 months since I read it. I think it looks at both culture and infertility in interesting ways, and I feel that of all the fiction this one ‘fitted the brief’ best. It’s been a long time since I read it, and I made the decision to not reread it – maybe if it is shortlisted I will reread it.

The Butchering Art and also The Vaccine Race are very similar books with very different topics – and of the two I did prefer The Buthering Art. The former is about the history of surgery and how one man – Joseph Lister – changed medicine from something that was almost medieval and pretty certain to get you killed to something more like what we know today. He ‘discovered’ hospital hygiene, implemented things like sterilising and life expectancy soared because of it. The later is about the history of the immunisation, and the race to formulate one before more people died. While it missed the mark on the most part for me, it was nonetheless an approachable book which dealt with difficult topics in a good way. I didn’t love it, but it wasn’t bad.

In Pursuit of Memory is the story of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – it’s both personal and scientific, for me it was a really powerful and informative read. I really enjoyed the way the book was put across, and I think it was a really good grounding for something that affects so many of us.

Behave is the book I’m currently only 15% through but already I can tell it’s a good one. Maybe not the best book I’ve ever read, but definitely good. However, the reason I’m hesitant to add it to the list (and it was the one I debated over most) is that it is dense, it is more academic (in spite of the dust jacket saying it was a really good book for non-specialists) and I’m not sure I particularly enjoy everything that is being said. However, I think it is an incredible feat of science and with time and patience I’m working my way through it slowly!

Finally, finally, I want to talk about With the End in Mind which is by far and away the best book on this list in my opinion. My review for that book has done crazy things, but with every share of it I feel a sense of pride because people are reading my review and taking the time to share it with people, people who don’t normally read, people who are scared of death and what it means and that’s what I wanted when I read this book. The traffic I’ve been getting is incredible – and all because of one review about a topic that is so taboo. When I read the book I knew all I wanted to do is tell people about it. I wanted to share it because it felt so, so very special when I read it. It has helped me, and I want it to help others. The fact that people have been taking time to read my review and then share it – to the point a UK based palliative care charity acknowledged it – is incredible and something very, very special because I had no idea it would do that. For a book about death it certainly uplifted me – and also made me shed a tear. For me this is the winner. I don’t care what the judges say, this book needs to be in hospitals, it needs to be given to relatives who are approaching a difficult junction in their lives. I could talk about this book for hours, in fact I probably have already and I only finished it 10 days ago.

But, now I’ve made my views known I’d love for you to share your opinions on the books on the longlist and what ones you think ought to be picked for the shortlist.

All I will say is I’m glad I don’t work Tuesdays because I absolutely cannot wait to see the special 6 announced on the 20th!

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading and have a lovely weekend

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: With the End in Mind – Kathryn Mannix

023 - With the End in Mind

023 - With the End in Mind

Rating – 5*

Hands down this book is one of the best I have read this year – possibly ever. It was by no means an easy read, but it was incredible and trying to put in to words the profound affect this book has already had on me is difficult.

Dr Kathryn Mannix is a palliative care consultant – she has seen a lot of people dying and, in this book, is trying to relieve the stigma that modern society has around death and the process of dying. It is something as natural as birth and waits for us all but it’s something we don’t really talk about, least of all with those people in our lives who it really matters to talk about it with!

She explores the pattern of dying – what most people experience at any rate. But rather than doing it in medical jargon she tells stories – the patients who lives (and deaths) touched her in some way. The care she and her teams over the years have for patients in their final minutes is the care we all wish we could experience, but fear among loved ones means that often that gentle, understanding death doesn’t happen. She takes time to explain to loved ones the patterns, what they can expect and honestly, it is the frank and honest conversation that so many more people should have when keeping vigils at someones bedside. I know I’d have benefited from this woman – or even this book – 3 and a half years ago when I said goodbye to my grandmother.

This book had me sobbing. Fat, ugly tears. Each chapter is someones story, their life, their death, and what she as a clinician learnt from them. She does justice to each one of the lives she tells in this book, she handles them all with grace and dignity. Equally, parts of this book had me laughing. That is something I was definitely not expecting in a book about death! At some points I was somehow doing both simultaneously.

Mannix does also tell some personal stories – how sitting on the other side of the fence (so to speak) with her own grandmother was something which only made her a better doctor, it was something she learnt from. And also how she had the conversation with her son when their cat had been injured and wasn’t going to survive. I’m not going to lie, I cried when the cat died too.

I cannot praise this book enough. So far it’s a head and shoulders above the rest on the long list and, honestly, if this doesn’t get short listed I may well kick off! As I said at the start, it is by no means an easy read but I think it’s a necessary read for so many people. Death shouldn’t have a stigma attached to it and this book is absolutely hammering this point home.

I put on twitter that I’d like this to be on prescription – and I really thing it ought to be. Maybe not prescription, but it should definitely be handed out to people facing an imminent death of a loved one.

My only criticism is that in parts it was repetitive, but honestly every time I felt that it affected me just as much. It was an absolutely beautiful book, and so far it’s my front runner.

I would also like to say that I listened to this as an audiobook in parts, I found that a really good way to take it in. Elizabeth Carling was a fantastic narrator for this, her tone was just right and it really had a positive impact on my overall feelings about this book. If you’re a little unsure about it, definitely give the audiobook a go because it was marvellous.

Review: The White Book – Han Kang

022 - The White Book

022 - The White Book

Rating – 3*

In the last week I’ve somehow managed to get through 4 of the Wellcome Book Prize long listed books. This was the first of them, and actually one of my more anticipated books on the longlist as it’s by an author who I’ve heard of! This will be a relatively short review as the book itself was only 130 pages or so long!

The White Book by Han Kang is a rather short and sparse book, and one that having read I’m confused as to why it appears on the longlist. It’s a ‘concept’ book in my eyes, the writing is short and punchy, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to it, it’s vague and focuses very heavily on imagery.

The story behind this book is the loss her parents experienced when her oldest sister was born two months premature in a harsh winter and there was no way that she’d survive. It is heavily biographical, and I think the experimental nature of the writing comes from it being a cathartic piece that was meant for her more than anyone else. There is a lot of blank space – white space if you will – and some of it reads like poetry, some of it like prose. Some of it is vague and out there other parts are clear as a bell. There’s a disparity to this book and, for some reason, it just didn’t settle with me.

It was a powerful book in parts, the parts directly dealing with loss, grief, premature birth and the things which this book was nominated for the Wellcome Prize for were great but, as far as the prose goes I felt it was a bit too far out there for me! I’m not going to say it was a bad book, because a lot of it was great, some of the imagery was great but reading it in line with a book prize about biosciences and medicine, and also comparing it to her previous books translated in to English it did fall short of the mark for me unfortunately.

Review: The Vaccine Race – Meredith Wadman

019 - The Vaccine Race

019 - The Vaccine Race

Rating – 3*

Vaccines are an incredibly interesting topic – and interestingly enough one that I only know the bare bones about. This book was one on the Wellcome Prize longlist that I probably would have eventually picked up because the topic is one that I would gravitate towards in the non-fiction section of a bookshop.

The Vaccine Race spans the history of the vaccination – the science, the people behind them, politics, competition and ethics. At the core, it’s a very rounded and thought out book but I felt that it was too little of everything and it was trying too hard to be a more intimate and personal book and it sort of let some of the science fall to the side in places, which was a little disappointing.

I will say I enjoyed the science in this book, and I did like that as I was reading it felt like a race against time to get the vaccinations figured out before any more damage can be caused. I do enjoy reading about scientific and medical ethics, and I’m glad it was covered in pretty much every part of this book. Wadman in no way approves of the methods by which Hayflick tested his creations, but she explains that by the culture of the period he was working in that it was acceptable. Thankfully, science and ethics have moved on from going straight in to human trials on non-consenting participants!

I’ve seen this book compared to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and while I feel that it was written in the same tone in parts, what made that book incredible made this one only mediocre. Which makes me sad because I really wanted to love this book.

Unfortunately for me this missed the mark. I found the first 100 pages or so really interesting, the first chapter I was absolutely hooked on it, but from there it became a really hard read. It became a chore. Where I read 11 books before I started this one, it took the entirety of the second half of February for me to finish this. The start really lured me in to a sense that this was going to be an amazing book, and yeah, it just didn’t continue in the same way.

Review: I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell

017 - I Am I Am I Am

017 - I Am, I Am, I Am

Rating – 3*

This book has been receiving incredible reviews, and I was very excited to finally get to it because it sounded interesting. As with a lot of the Wellcome Prize longlist, they’re not books I would ordinarily pick up and that was certainly the case with this.

Firstly, I will say, the cover is gorgeous, I love it (and if anyone is interested, the header for this post is an electron microscope image of heart cells, to pay homage to the beauty of it).

The premise of the book is the author telling stories from her life from the near-death experiences she’s had. It is a really interesting concept, and one I was quite morbidly fascinated by. Although it’s billed as quite a sensational book, with the byline of “seventeen brushes with death” it’s a lot more reflective and intimate than it may be sold as. Also, the final chapter is about her daughter (which actually, for me, was the most poignant chapter) and a couple of the ‘brushes with death’ are tenuous at best. Not to make light of her life, but not all of it felt entirely relevant to the premise.

I’ve never read O’Farrell’s fiction, and while the writing in this book was beautiful on the whole I’m not entirely sure her writing is for me. Some of the meandering thoughts were just too much for me, and sometimes her writing I found a bit grating. That isn’t to say it wasn’t good, it was, I just felt that maybe an editor could have taken a bit more time and care to make it flow a lot better. Another thing about this book which was a bit baffling is the timeline. It’s all over the place. Maybe it was done to keep you reading, I don’t know, but generally speaking I like a memoir to move chronologically and this was backing and forthing.

There are so many positive reviews for this book, people raving about it, saying how much they connected to it. I just didn’t. I didn’t connect, I didn’t like the meandering prose, I didn’t enjoy the timeline being all over the place. And, writing this review a week on, it hasn’t been a book that stuck with me. In a way I understand how people might connect with this book, but for me it just wasn’t that five star read everyone has been raving about.

Review: Mayhem – Sigrid Rausing

016 - Mayhem

016 - Mayhem

Rating – 2*

Another day, another review for the Wellcome Prize longlist. Today I’m talking about Mayhem – which is a memoir about addiction and the impact it has on a family. While it was interesting, and intimate in parts, I didn’t find myself blown away by it, in fact I don’t feel there is much to say about it.

Rausing is the granddaughter of the man who found Tetra Pak, and her brother Hans is who this book is ultimately about. In 2012, after being arrested for possession of class A drugs, his London home was searched by the police where Eva – his then wife – was found dead. She had been dead for 2 months when the police found her. At the crux of it all was drugs – and this book (told from his sister Sigrid’s perspective) is essentially his side of the story, how he came to be addicted, how he and Eva tried to conquer their demons and ultimately the disease which is addiction.

I found the sections which focus on the science of addiction, the whole is it nature or is it nurture debate, really interesting and compelling. I can see why, based on these sections alone, it was longlisted but for me it lacked something. It was a personal story, but I felt constantly detached from the narrative. While I can tell that this is an emotional book for the author to write, it can’t have been easy reliving what was an absolutely awful period of history for her family, it came across to me as a bit narcissistic.

For me, personally, I don’t understand why this book is on the Wellcome longlist. It’s okay, it’s a memoir, but it doesn’t have that impact that things like When Breath Becomes Air or even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks did – and they’re comparable having both been shortlisted (and winning) the prize in the past. On the whole, a bit of a miss 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!

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 || Longlist Discussion

WBP Longlist

Happy Saturday my lovely readers, and welcome to a bonus post this week in which I am going to discuss my most anticipated bookish event of 2018 so far – the announcement of the Wellcome Book Prize longlist.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Wellcome Prize , to summarise it is an an annual prize and eligible books are those which have central themes of medicine, health, illness, or biosciences. Because of this broad criteria the lists of books nominated are from a number of genres – both fiction and non-fiction, but can span across any sub-genres of those. And I love it.

Last year I managed to read the shortlist, this year I want to read the entirety of the longlist. As I write this I have already read 2 of the books – one is Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ which I read last Summer, and the second is The Butchering Art as when I was reading through the descriptions of each book that one was one I wanted to read asap. So I did.

So, without further ado, the books:-


Wellcome Longlist

image courtesy of


As you can see from the picture there is an enormous amount of variety – and something I am very happy about is the amount of books that I hadn’t even heard of on this list. I can say that there are 3 books here that I knew existed and the rest have me very, very excited (so excited that I have bought a huge number of them already!)

I’d be interested to hear if any of you reading this have seen any of these books (the ones I am familiar with are Stay With Me, The White Book and I Am, I Am, I Am – the rest I know nothing about!) and if you have read any too. If you have, are there any you think I ought to get to sooner rather than later?

The shortlist is announced on March 20th – thankfully a Tuesday (I don’t work Tuesdays) – and I’m hoping to have got through the bulk of this longlist by then. Needless to say I have a few very, very exciting reading weeks ahead of me and I for one cannot wait!

As I said above, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the Wellcome Prize. For me it’s one of the most varied, vibrant literary prizes out there because it focuses across such a wide breadth of genres. I also think it’s a very accessible prize – those of you not as confident or comfortable reading science based non fiction can definitely still enjoy this prize as there’s a decent amount of variety and, for me at least, even the non-fiction is easy to read and get your teeth in to.

So, in the next few weeks you can expect to see all 12 (well, 11 because I don’t think I’ll be re-reading Stay With Me) of these books reviewed. Hopefully before March 20th! Wish me luck.