May Reads

May was a fantastic month for reading, ticking off nine books across a number of genres – from sci-fi and YA, to literary fiction and murder mystery.

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Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – 5*

A modern retelling of Antigone, Home Fire is a timely, relevant novel that I urge you to read. I knew relatively little of Antigone and it was only afterwards, that I started looking up the storyline that I saw the clever parallels with it between Home Fire. Shamsie has woven an intricate thread that unravels on the last page – a proper tour-de-force of an ending!

I’ll Be Gone In The Dark by Michele McNamara – 4*

Published posthumously, this is the tale searching for The Golden State Killer – a man who committed a proliferation of murders and rapes across California in the 1970s and 80s. McNamara’s writing style is more crime-thriller than true crime, which absorbs you into the story. Full of meticulous detail and reports, this is such an interesting tale. Although be warned, it’s definitely creepy – I live in a single storey house and it left me feeling on edge.

Clean by Juno Dawson – 3*

A young adult novel, which definitely erred on the side of adult than teenage fiction. The story follows teen socialite Lexi into a rehab facility where she is treated for heroin addiction. It was a compelling and easy read – particularly given the heavy subject matter – but I felt it lacked diversity and depth, and was a little predictable in places. I wouldn’t rush to recommend this one.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – 4*

A cross between Agatha Christie, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and a real life game of Cluedo! I’m in awe of Turton’s plotting skills – it takes a real mastermind to be able to write and execute a story like this. A mind-bowing and unique concept.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson – 3*

This one didn’t really hit the mark for me – I was expecting to be scared witless, but instead I was left a little defeated. Perhaps it was because I read it on a sunny May commute with lots of hubbub around me, rather than a candlelit winter night with storms raging outside.

Everything I know about love by Dolly Alderton – 3*

An ode to growing up, growing old and navigating all types of love. Enjoyable, laugh-out-loud and sad in places, but perhaps not the mind-blowingly good book I was hoping it would be.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively – 3*

I think this was a case of right book, wrong time. It took me quite a while to get into the writing of Moon Tiger, which is saying something as it’s a relatively short book. It tells the story of Claudia who wants to write the history of the world whilst in hospital during her final days. There were bits that I thought were fantastic, but I don’t think I was really in the mood to read this at the time – I might revisit it in the future. 

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem – 4*

This was such an intelligent, complex and haunting sci-fi read. It reads as if it’s just been written, rather than 40 years ago. It’s vague in places, but the way Lem writes allows you to imagine the depths of Solaris – it focuses on alien life and the way humans communicate and understand it. It’s esoteric, leaving you with more questions than answers but well worth a read. Next up, I’m going to watch the films.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin – 5*

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If you knew the date of your death would you live your life differently? The Immortalists follow four siblings through their life. Chloe’s writing is immersive – the world she has constructed and the characters within it are just beautiful. I’ve seen mixed reviews of this one, but I couldn’t rate it highly enough. It will stick with me for a long time.

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On Courage: A celebration of the Victoria and George Cross holders

Happy publication day to On Courage, stories of Victoria Cross and George Cross holders (published by Constable, Little Brown).

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On Courage is a moving collection of 28 inspirational stories, which showcase the valour, courage and bravery shown by recipients of the Victoria Cross and George Cross. The VC is the highest military decoration awarded for valour in the face of the enemy to members of the armed forces, whilst the GC is awarded to those who have displayed heroism or courage whilst in extreme danger.

Each chapter in On Courage is introduced by a public figure – from Mary Berry to Sir Bobby Charlton – and the stories told are remarkable, but also at times hard to read. The determination and selflessness of the VC and GC recipients is just incredible. Reading through the accounts was incredibly humbling – protecting others at the expense of your own safety is something I’m sure not many of us would be selfless and courageous enough to do. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the situations the recipients of the VC and GC endured and overcame.

Today, I wanted to shine a light on one story in particular – the one of RAF flight engineer Norman Jackson. During the war, he climbed out onto the wing of his Lancaster bomber plane, whilst in flight over Germany, to put out a fire using a twisted parachute as a rope. Whilst out there, with exploding aircraft around him lighting up the sky, he was shot in the arm which caused him to plunge down to earth, and many were surprised that he lived to tell the tale. He confronted fear head-on to protect his comrades and squadron, all on the night his first child was born. I found this story particularly moving as my Grandfather was also a pilot in the RAF during WWII – it made me think of the resilience and bravery they must have had up in the sky. But truth be told, this wasn’t the only story that left me with a lump in my throat and glassy eyes.

A heart-warming read, On Courage reminds you of the good in humanity and shows that wherever we go in life there will be remarkable people, if we just look for them. I highly recommend picking this up – just be sure to get the tissues at the ready!

You can order a copy of the book through Waterstones here.

The Victoria Cross and George Cross Association made its archive available, which contributed to the publication of On Courage. The book is part of The Sebastopol Project, which will raise money for Combat Stress, as well as The VC and GC Association – £2.70 of every book purchase will go directly to charity. Combat Stress is the UK’s leading charity for veterans’ mental health.

Wellcome Book Prize: To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell [Blog Tour]

Following on from my blog post on The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist, I’m here today as part of the blog tour, showcasing the wonderful To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell, which is published by Granta Books.

The prize celebrates the many ways in which literature can illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness. If you’re not too familiar with the Wellcome Collection, then I highly recommend you check the museum out – it’s a great destination for the curious and often has intelligent, engaging and thought-provoking exhibitions on. The museum was originally established under Sir Henry’s will in 1936, and is now a global charitable foundation, which aims to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive.

Here’s a quick reminder of the other shortlisted books:

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 shortlist

The winner is set to be announced at a ceremony on Monday 30th April 2018, which is being held at The Wellcome Collection, and the prize is being judged by:

  • Hannah Critchlow, Neuroscientist, author and presenter
  • Bryony Gordon, Journalist, author and mental health campaigner
  • Edmund de Waal, Writer and Artist
  • Sumit Paul-Choudhury, Journalist
  • Sophie Ratcliffe, Writer, critic and academic 

A little more about To Be a Machine: 

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Transhumanism is a movement pushing the limits of our bodies–our capabilities, intelligence, and lifespans–in the hopes that, through technology, we can become something better than ourselves. It has found support among Silicon Valley billionaires and some of the world’s biggest businesses. In To Be a Machine, journalist Mark O’Connell explores the staggering possibilities and moral quandaries that present themselves when you of think of your body as a device. He visits the world’s foremost cryonics facility to witness how some have chosen to forestall death. He discovers an underground collective of biohackers, implanting electronics under their skin to enhance their senses. He meets a team of scientists urgently investigating how to protect mankind from artificial superintelligence.

Where is our obsession with technology leading us? What does the rise of AI mean not just for our offices and homes, but for our humanity? Could the technologies we create to help us eventually bring us to harm? Addressing these questions, O’Connell presents a profound, provocative, often laugh-out-loud-funny look at an influential movement. In investigating what it means to be a machine, he offers a surprising meditation on what it means to be human.

Author: Mark O’ Connell
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Granta Books

My initial thoughts: 

One thing that really draws me to To Be a Machine is that it looks at the influence technological innovations have on humanity and humanity’s future – ever since I was a young age, technology has fascinated and scared me in equal measure, so this a topic that really intrigues me. Also, in my career to date I’ve worked with a number of huge technology brands and it often astounds me that there’s no end to the use cases of new science and innovations – particularly when looking at new developments within hacking and robotics, I often end up thinking what next?

Whilst I’m yet to finish reading To Be a Machine, I’ve found it to be really thought-provoking, clever and engrossing so far. It manages to explores a really complex, and at times dark, subject matter in a chatty, candid and digestible way. I’m looking forward to finishing it off to see what the rest of the book holds.

Today I’ve also got an extract of To Be a Machine – read on and enjoy:

A broad definition: transhumanism is a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself. There is another way of seeing this, an equal and opposite interpretation, which is that this apparent liberation would in reality be nothing less than a final and total enslavement to technology. We will be bearing both sides of this dichotomy in mind as we proceed. For all the extremity of transhumanism’s aims—the convergence of technology and flesh, for instance, or the uploading of minds into machines—the above dichotomy seemed to me to express something fundamental about the particular time in which we find ourselves, in which we are regularly called upon to consider how technology is changing everything for the better, to acknowledge the extent to which a particular app or platform or device is making the world a better place.

If we have hope for the future—if we think of ourselves as having such a thing as a future—it is predicated in large part on what we might accomplish through our machines. In this sense, transhumanism is an intensification of a tendency already inherent in much of what we think of as mainstream culture, in what we may as well go ahead and call capitalism. And yet the inescapable fact of this aforementioned moment in history is that we, and these machines of ours, are presiding over a vast project of annihilation, an unprecedented destruction of the world we have come to think of as ours. The planet is, we are told, entering a sixth mass extinction: another Fall, another expulsion. It seems very late in the day, in this dismembered world, to be talking about a future. One of the things that drew me to this movement, therefore, was the paradoxical force of its anachronism. For all that transhumanism presented itself as resolutely oriented toward a vision of a world to come, it felt to me almost nostalgically evocative of a human past in which radical optimism seemed a viable position to take with respect to the future. In the way it looked forward, transhumanism seemed, somehow, always to be facing backward. The more I learned about transhumanism, the more I came to see that, for all its apparent extremity and strangeness, it was nonetheless exerting certain formative pressures on the culture of Silicon Valley, and thereby the broader cultural imagination of technology. Transhumanism’s influence seemed perceptible in the fanatical dedication of many tech entrepreneurs to the ideal of radical life extension—in the PayPal cofounder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel’s funding of various life extension projects, for instance, and in Google’s establishment of its biotech subsidiary Calico, aimed at generating solutions to the problem of human aging. And the movement’s influence was perceptible, too, in Elon Musk’s and Bill Gates’s and Stephen Hawking’s increasingly vehement warnings about the prospect of our species’ annihilation by an artificial superintelligence, not to mention in Google’s instatement of Ray Kurzweil, the high priest of the Technological Singularity, as its director of engineering.

I saw the imprint of transhumanism in claims like that of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who suggested that “Eventually, you’ll have an implant, where if you just think about a fact, it will tell you the answer.” These men—they were men, after all, almost to a man—all spoke of a future in which humans would merge with machines. They spoke, in their various ways, of a posthuman future—a future in which techno-capitalism would survive its own inventors, finding new forms in which to perpetuate itself, fulfill its promise.

Have you read any books on the Wellcome Book Prize shortlist? Which one do you think will win this year? 

You can catch the other blog posts on the tour, here:

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March Reads

I would say ‘how has another month passed?’ but I seem to say the same thing every month, so I’ll save the spiel.

I had a real bumper month of reading and got stuck into some amazing books, so without further ado here’s an update

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – 4/5

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This one is nominated for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction and is such a memorable read. Loneliness, depression and friendship are all explored through Eleanor’s wonderfully quirky and bereft character – Gail Honeyman has created such a complex, deep and believable character in Eleanor, one who is set in her ways until one small accident changes everything for her. There were bits of this book which weren’t perfect, however overall I absolutely loved it and would heartily recommend it to friends and family. 

An Unremarkable Body by Elisa Lodato – 4/5

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When Katharine is found dead at the foot of her stairs, it is the mystery of her life that consumes her daughter, Laura. The book highlights that although, as we discover from her autopsy, Katherine has an unremarkable body she’s had a life full of hidden secrets. This book is a trip down memory lane, Laura longs for her dead Mother as she tries to figure out if she ever really knew her at all.

The F Word by Lily Pebbles – 3/5

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A modern-day tale of female friendship and its complexities, written by YouTuber Lily Pebbles. This was an easy read, but felt more like one long journal entry, than a study on friendship and was a little repetitive in places. For me, it lacked real substance and I think  it is probably better suited for a younger audience.

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper – 4/5

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An absolute powerhouse of a book. These Dividing Walls starts as a cosy look at the people behind four walls in Paris and ends up being an explosive look at race, politics, terrorism and relationships. I’m not going to say much about the topic, or what happens, as I implore you to read it. Fran Cooper’s second novel – The Two Houses – is out now and I’ve made sure I’ve requested it at my local library.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell – 4/5

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Denmark is officially the happiest nation on Earth. When Helen Russell is forced to move to rural Jutland, can she discover the secrets of their happiness? This book is split into months of the year, with the writer exploring one element of Danish life in each chapter – covering everything from traditions to the harsh Danish winters. This was such an enjoyable, cosy read which made me question what makes me happy in my life, but most of all it made me want to move to Denmark. Sign me up, when do I leave? 

We Were the Salt of the Sea by Roxanne Bouchard

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A lyrical, literary crime story. – a poetic ode to the sea. At times I struggled with the flow of this book – it has a certain lilt to it and a very distinctive voice rhythm and style. Unfortunately, on this occasion I just think it was the wrong timing for me to read this.

Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth – 4/5

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Described as a female version of Withnail and I, Animals is a raucous read from start to finish – it leaves you tired from Laura and Tyler’s high-octane escapades. However, underneath the drink, drugs and whirlwind lifestyles, it questions how we want our lives to pan-out, asking us when is the right time to grow up, as well as understanding what we might need to leave behind to achieve a happy life. A tale of female friendship, love and belonging.

Wellcome Book Prize 2018: Shortlist

I’ve been meaning to post about the Wellcome Book Prize for a while now – if you haven’t heard of it, it’s a fascinating prize that celebrates the many ways in which literature can illuminate the breadth and depth of our relationship with health, medicine and illness.

I absolutely love the Wellcome Collection – it’s one of my favourite places to visit in London. They host incredible special exhibitions – covering off the brain, death, dirt and Indian medicine. It’s such a fascinating place, so naturally it’s a prize that interests me.

In 2017, the price was won by Maylis de Kerangal for Mend the Living (translated by Jessica Moore) – a heartbreaking piece of fiction that explores medical ethics and organ transplantation. This year, the shortlist comprises of six books – five are written by women and five are debuts:

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From the list I’ve read Stay With Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀ (Canongate Books), which ended up being one of my favourite reads of last year. The others that particularly appeal to me are Mayhem, A Memoir and To be a Machine. I’m hoping I’ll get around to ticking these off my TBR list soon.

This year the prize is being judged by: Hannah Critchlow, Bryony Gordon, Edmund de Waal, Sumit Paul-Choudhury and Sophie Ratcliffe, and the winner will be announced on 30th April, at a ceremony at the Wellcome Collection.

Femmeuary Reads

I had such a great month of reading in February – I stuck to my pledge of only reading books by women, as part of Lauren and The Books’ Femmeuary (see this post if you have no idea what I’m on about). I managed to read five four star reads and one five star books – I’ve felt more motivated to read than I have in a long, long time. May this reading streak continue! 

How to be Human: The Manual by Ruby Wax (Penguin) – 4/5  

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This is a warm and witty look at mental health; accessible and informative it discusses twelve elements, from evolution to addiction. In tone and content, I found this quite similar to her previous books Sane New World and Mindfulness for the Frazzled, however I thought the structure of it was great and really enjoyed the discussions between the monk and the neuroscientist. At the end of each chapter, each topic is dissected, looking at how the mind works, mindfulness and more scientifically, the brain. If you’re looking for a light-hearted book at why we behave in certain ways, this one is for you.

The Road Home by Rose Tremain (Vintage) – 4/5

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A book about courage, belonging, determination, love and family. I was nervous going into The Road Home, as last year The Gustav Sonata by Tremain was one of my favourite books and I hoped that this would live up to expectations. I’m pleased to say it did – I absolutely loved it. Rose Tremain creates characters that are intricate and three-dimensional, ones that you care about and also ones that at times you hate. There was only one plot point that jarred with me – no spoilers here, but on reflection I can see why Rose Tremain included it, however the point in question seemed so out of character for the book’s main man (Lev) that I thought I was a little unnecessary.

Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand (Bloomsbury) – 4/5

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Sophia Duleep Singh was born into Indian royalty. Her father, Maharajah Duleep Singh, was heir to the Kingdom of the Sikhs, one of the greatest empires of the Indian subcontinent. My Mum got me this book for Christmas and I’d saved it to read to coincide with it being 100 years since (some) women got the vote and woman’s suffrage. At times this is quite dense, but never unenjoyable, to read – it is rich with description and character, so much so that you get a true flavour of what Sophia was like, her priorities and her lifestyle. I learnt so much from this book. Ultimately it is about a strong, independent and revolutionary female that I’d previously not heard of.

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray (Aster) – 4/5

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A fresh look at alcohol addiction and the joy sobriety can bring, as well as understanding why society has a negative view of staying sober. This was in no way condescending, or preachy, instead Catherine Gray provides information – and her story – and lets you make your own mind up. It tells the tale of her booze-fuelled twenties and how hitting rock bottom allowed her to start living her life again. It is a super quick, and enjoyable read, which definitely made me question my health and my alcohol consumption. 

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (Blackfriars) – 4/5

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This novel opens with such a punchy first line – “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” after reading this, I was hooked and raced through this novel in two short sittings. Everything I Never Told You is about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio; it explores family dynamics, racial tension, and the pressures children can face from parents. Ultimately, it is about discovering who we, and our families, really are and why we behave the way we do. Ng’s writing is beautiful, filled with tension and tenderness – I’ve now got her second book, Little Fires Everywhere high-up on my TBR list.

The Unseen World by Liz Moore (Windmill Books) – 5/5

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Where do I start? This was, without doubt, my standout novel for the month. It follows Ada Sibelius, an intelligent young girl who has been raised by David, her brilliant, eccentric, socially inept single father, who directs a computer science lab. Set in multiple eras (1980s and 2009), early on in the novel Ada realises David is forgetting things – the book is her quest to discover her father’s past and piece together his life. It is emotional, quirky and intense – it won’t be for everything, but for me it was incredible. A full review will follow shortly, once I’ve managed to put how much I enjoyed it into words.

Anticipated Reads: March

Here are the books that I’m most looking forward to reading in March (all blurbs are below):

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The F Word by Lily Pebbles (Hodder & Stoughton) 

If there’s one piece of invaluable advice for women and girls of all ages, it is that there is nothing more important than creating and maintaining strong, positive and happy friendships with other women.

If Lily Pebble’s 1998 diary is anything to go by, female friendships are incredibly complex and emotional but they’re the mini love stories that make us who we are. For many women, friends are our partners in crime through life; they are the ones who move us into new homes, out of bad relationships, through births and illnesses.

The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal (Viking)

Mona is a young Irish girl in the big city, with the thrill of a new job and a room of her own in a busy boarding house. On her first night out in 1970s Birmingham, she meets William, a charming Irish boy with an easy smile and an open face. They embark upon a passionate affair, a whirlwind marriage – before a sudden tragedy tears them apart.

Decades later, Mona pieces together the memories of the years that separate them. But can she ever learn to love again?

Bitter by Francesca Jakobi (W&N)

It’s 1969, and while the summer of love lingers in London, Gilda is consumed by the mistakes of her past. She walked out on her beloved son Reuben when he was just a boy and fears he’ll never forgive her. Yet she hopes desperately they can mend their shattered relationship.

When Reuben marries a petite blonde gentile, Gilda takes it as the ultimate rejection. Her cold, distant son seems transformed by love – a love she’s craved his entire adult life. What does his new wife have that she doesn’t? It’s an obsession that will bring shocking truths about the past to light . . .

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (Tinder Press)

It’s 1969, and holed up in a grimy tenement building in New York’s Lower East Side is a travelling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the date they will die. The four Gold children, too young for what they’re about to hear, sneak out to learn their fortunes.

Over the years that follow, the siblings must choose how to live with the prophecies the fortune-teller gave them that day. Will they accept, ignore, cheat or defy them? Golden-boy Simon escapes to San Francisco, searching for love; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician; eldest son Daniel tries to control fate as an army doctor after 9/11; and bookish Varya looks to science for the answers she craves.

Bookworm A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Square Peg)

She was whisked away to Narnia – and Kirrin Island – and Wonderland. She ventured down rabbit holes and womble burrows into midnight gardens and chocolate factories. She wandered the countryside with Milly-Molly-Mandy, and played by the tracks with the Railway Children. With Charlotte’s Web she discovered Death and with Judy Blume it was Boys. No wonder she only left the house for her weekly trip to the library or to spend her pocket money on amassing her own at home.

In Bookworm, Lucy revisits her childhood reading with wit, love and gratitude. She relives our best-beloved books, their extraordinary creators, and looks at the thousand subtle ways they shape our lives. She also disinters a few forgotten treasures to inspire the next generation of bookworms and set them on their way.