Review

Everywoman, Jess Phillips

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I bought this book at Hay Festival after listening to a podcast interview with Jess Phillips by Emma Gannon.  Jess Phillips is an English MP in the Birmingham Yardley area for the Labour Party.  Before becoming an MP, Jess worked for charities and organisations offering support for victims of domestic and sexual violence.  Her book, Everywoman, is about her experiences with Women’s Aid and inside the House of Commons, and her life as a feminist who has campaigned for women’s rights nearly all her life.

This book allows Jess to speak the truth about growing up as a woman, motherhood, careers, the internet and the fight for equality.  She offers insight into the political party she belongs to and is totally honest about her experiences there, even when the truth does not necessarily support her party and its leader.  I think this is a fascinating read no matter which English political party (if any) that you side with.  It certainly opened my eyes to some of the tactics politicians on all sides use to please a certain group of people (e.g. women) without alienating the other  – something politicians clearly fear according to this book.

As a feminist and a woman I felt like I was part of something great when reading Everywoman.  It made me incredibly proud to know that there are women (and men) in Parliament who are fighting for gender equality on the inside.  I also enjoyed Jess’ down-to-earth writing style and the way she is able to simply and clearly state and explain her opinions without being at all patronising.  It allowed me to strengthen some of the opinions I have myself and clarify the ones I feel confused by.  One example of this was my personal internal debate about how we as a society can increase equality and fair representation without falling into the trap of positive discrimination, something that is actually against the Equality Act.  Jess managed to explain the importance of giving women and other minorities a chance whilst staying inside the law.  This managed to clear up my own thoughts on it and allow me to form a proper opinion.

If I had to describe this book in two words it would be honest and empowering.  I’m just so glad books like this exist and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in women’s rights, feminism and politics.

Review

Never Say Die, Anthony Horowitz

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It had been years since I had read the Alex Rider series.  I remember it changing the way I looked at stories before I was a teenager, and helping my reading taste mature very quickly.  It was a whole series of exciting action-packed books that were not afraid of shocking their young readers.

The Alex Rider series focuses on a fourteen/fifteen year old school boy in London who gets recruited by MI5 shortly after the death of his uncle, his only remaining family after his parents died, an MI5 agent himself.  Think James Bond for children really.  To help Alex on his missions, the inventor Smithers gives him many different Bond-esque gadgets that come in handy whenever Alex gets himself into trouble.

Despite being written six years after the last book, Never Say Die is set only six weeks after.  It starts with Alex living in America with the family who adopted Alex after his guardian Jack died by the hands of the leader of an evil organisation, before Alex can stop him and the whole organisation.  In this book, Alex is so convinced Jack is still alive that he travels across the world to find out, and in true Alex Rider style gets himself stuck in the middle of another evil plot that he must stop.

I really enjoyed reading this book because of how familiar it was to me despite it being years since I read the last one.  Although the style and content was a little juvenile for me now I’m an adult, I still found it a gripping read.  I found some of the plot twists a little easy to predict but I will admit that some still surprised and shocked me.

Overall, I think this book is a very fun and interesting read for adults and children.  The series as a whole will always remain significant to me because of how much I enjoyed them when I was younger, and how much they influenced me to step out of children’s fiction and attempt to read more books in the teen fiction sections of bookshops and libraries.

Book Stack · Discussion

Hay Festival

Over the weekend I went to the Hay Festival of Literature and Arts in Wales.  I last went two years ago and really enjoyed myself.  It helped me realise that I should study English at university, and two years on I have just finished my first year of studying English.  It was therefore time to return to Hay.  Whilst there, I managed to buy 10 books (oops) from the festival bookshop, the onsite Oxfam charity bookshop and a bookshop in the town of Hay itself.

Hay on Wye is famous for its bookshops and there are loads! We reserved one day for exploring the town and that definitely wasn’t enough.  I hope to return another time between now and the next festival simply to explore each bookshop in good time.

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The first book I bought was Making Sense by David Crystal, his new book all about English grammar and how it has come to be what it is.  I bought this during his book signing after the lecture he did about grammar.  As someone who enjoys language and linguistics, I found this talk fascinating.  David Crystal is a leading linguist in the UK and a real inspiration for me.  This was the third time I had heard him talk, and the third time I had attended a book signing of his.

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Also at the festival bookshop, I bought Everywoman by Jess Phillips, a politician in Birmingham who has written a book about the importance of feminism and women’s rights; Never Say Die by Anthony Horowitz; and Creation by Adam Rutherford, about the origin (and future) of life.  After buying the Horowitz book, I joined the queue for the book signing.  I waited just over an hour but it was worth it.  Anthony Horowitz is a great author and very generous with his time.  Although the majority of the queue was made up of children reading the Alex Rider series for the first time, a few were older and had read it years ago like me.  It was amazing to see people of so many different ages all queueing for so long (even in the rain) to meet the same author.

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I then went to the onsite Oxfam shop and bought a book on British short stories, Middlemarch by George Eliot and Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway.  The charity campaign said that buying three books could buy school equipment for a child in Africa.  I love nothing more than helping someone else whilst buying more books for my collection!

Lastly, I went to a lovely second hand bookshop in the town.  It had three floors and lots of little side rooms and corridors.  That’s where I bought Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (to complete my collection of Austen novels), Work Suspended by Evelyn Waugh and A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick.

My time in Hay on Wye was once again amazing.  I adore the town and I love attending an event with so many people who are all passionate about reading and books.  I hope to go again next year too.

Review

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

Even if you haven’t read Treasure Island (which I hadn’t until now), or watched one of the countless adaptations, chances are you know a lot about it.  Treasure Island has formed the majority of our schema (mental images and associations) related to pirates.  It is the story of Jim Hawkins who embarks on a journey to a foreign island to find treasure, after discovering a map amongst the possessions of an old sailor who dies at his parents’ inn.

The story has everything you would possibly imagine when you think of pirates: mutiny, a talking parrot, a high rum consumption and lots of gold (and ‘pieces of eight’).  The characters are more complex than your typical protagonist/antagonist style.  Long John Silver, the captain of the mutineers, flicks between trustworthy and untrustworthy more than I thought considering I knew him as the ‘villain’ of the story.  Stevenson has managed to give even the most ruthless of pirates in his book a real humanity as his true fears and lack of confidence is shown to Jim at one point in the story.  I remember watching the Muppets film of Treasure Island when I was younger and finding Silver quite scary in it.  I found the original Silver to be much less scary and more human.

The story is told predominantly by Jim, however there is a section in the middle of the book that is told by the doctor who acts as a guardian to Jim, as he is in fact quite young when they go off on the journey.  As the book progresses, Jim appears to grow up.  It has a slight feeling of a coming of age story as Jim begins the journey as a fascinated, naïve child and returns as a man.  I feel this is reflected through the actions Jim makes, but also the narration itself.

Overall, I’m glad I finally got round to reading this classic text, and only wish I had done it sooner!

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The reason I read this book was because a few weeks ago I stumbled upon Penguin’s biannual magazine The Happy Reader (pictured above).  This season’s edition was about Treasure Island so whilst I waited for my magazine to arrive, I quickly read Treasure Island on my Kindle.  The magazine was divided into two halves.  The first was an extended interview with actor and entrepreneur Lily Cole and the second half was made up of short articles all related to Robert Louis Stevenson, his famous book and piracy.

I had never read a magazine dedicated to books so I absolutely enjoyed it.  I really liked the process of reading a particular book in preparation for the magazine because although the articles could have been read without full knowledge of the book, it helped.  This winter’s edition is based on Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We, which I’ll definitely have to check out later this year.

 

Review

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, Adam Rutherford

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At the start of 2017, one of my reading resolutions was to read more diverse books.  That involved more non-fiction books about topics I had not read about before.  A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived is a book about human genetics and what genealogy can tell us about who we were historically and who we are today.  Although this is very much a biology book (as Rutherford points out in a book related analogy about gene classification), this is the point where history and science meet.

In the first half of the book, Rutherford discusses how genealogy can help historians and anthropologists in their research to understand pre-historical and historical humans.  From Neanderthals to Richard III the study of genetics has helped us understand who we used to be.  As I’ve always been interested in history (I would like to thank Horrible Histories for that), I found this section fascinating.  I had heard the facts and theories about pre-history human species (e.g. how modern Europeans contain on average 2% Neanderthal DNA) but I didn’t understand how modern day researchers had come to these conclusions until I read this book.

The second half of the book was a lot more scientific and focused on biological and medical research with genealogy.  Rutherford explains how the study of genetics originated in racism but eventually, and ironically, disproved many Victorian and early twentieth century theories about race.  There is also a lot of examples of how our current knowledge (or belief of knowledge) has influenced medicine and the legal system.  From the birth of genealogy to the sequencing of the human genome, via the discovery of the double helix of DNA, Adam Rutherford has explained it in the most simple yet engaging way possible.

Although I have read a number of non-fiction books about science, I have usually steered clear of biology as it was the science I enjoyed the least at school, but as I wished to read more diverse books (and I like history) I decided to give it a go.  I am glad I did.  The older I get the more I realise the classifications of science done in education is unrealistic as different types of science, and even academia as a whole, merge and work together.  This book is where history meets biology but also where multiple studies and theories over the centuries have come together to give us an idea of what makes us human; what makes us one species despite our superficial differences across the world.

 

Review

All Our Wrong Todays, Elan Mastai

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The process of preparing for writing a blog review of a book I have just read falls into one of two methods.  Some books urge me to grab my laptop and throw words onto the screen in a matter of minutes the moment I put it down.  Other books require me to carefully ponder their content and meaning before delicately and rhythmically forming a review over the space of an hour or two.  This book definitely fell into the latter category.

All Our Wrong Todays is a story, set in a technological utopia in 2016, about an unambitious man called Tom who travels in time to a crucial point in his world’s history an accidentally changes the course of events.  After leaving the past, Tom wakes up in a hospital bed in a backwards dystopian style version of 2016, one that looks a lot like the world we live in today.  And to make matters worse, Tom’s alternative family (who are very different to the one he knew from before) are insisting his name is John and that he’s an award-winning architect.  Tom sets off on a mission to reverse the problems he caused before and return to his previous life, only to hit a dilemma about what is right for humanity and himself.

This book is a story about humanity and human relationships disguised as a pseudo-political science fiction novel.  That’s not to say the science fiction element isn’t great because it is.  Every piece of fictional science in the story is explained in a way, by our narrator Tom, that makes it somewhat believable.  Mastai has thought up reasonably logical fixes for every potential plot hole that other stories about time travel suffer from.  As the narrator is not a scientist himself, his explanations of the utopian technology is simple enough to understand and imagine.

I particularly enjoyed the strong theme of familial and romantic relationships.  Tom’s relationships with his family and Penelope, the woman he loves, changes greatly as he enters the new version of 2016.  Although he feels the world is backwards, he begins to realise how the perfect world he came from wasn’t so perfect after all.  It was a technological utopia but he had very few people to love and be close to compared to our 2016.  It’s a story that illustrates how much human emotion can affect our actions and our views of the world.

I think the style of narration – a fictional memoir written by Tom himself – really adds to the story and allows the themes of family and love to shine through.  The narration feels quite meta and occasionally flaky at times but these are the unique side effects of such an alternative way of writing this kind of story.  Throughout the book, Tom insists he is not writing a novel and therefore doesn’t need to follow the typical writing styles and conventions of a novel.  This is especially poignant in the last few chapters, and is something I very much enjoyed following.

Overall I think this book was a fascinating read.  It kept me intrigued and entertained from the first page to the last.  It has been a week since I finished it and I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about it and what it means for our relationships and our views on the world.

 

Review

Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman

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I read this book in a couple of days last week and thoroughly enjoyed it.  It is a collection of Norse mythology, from Scandinavia centuries ago, retold by Neil Gaiman.  In order to write this book, he read translations of original Norse texts and other famous retellings.  In the disclaimer in the front of the book, Gaiman writes that they are simply his interpretations and he very much allows his own voice to come through in the stories.

I knew a little of Norse mythology before I read this book.  After watching the Marvel film about Thor, I became interested in the myths that influenced Marvel to create their versions of these characters.  It was then that I attempted to read the classic Norse text. Prose Edda, one of the texts Gaiman read in order to write his versions of the stories.  At the time, I struggled to read it as I had little background knowledge of the characters or events.  Norse Mythology has given me the knowledge to hopefully revisit Prose Edda as it details a number of Norse myths simply yet still beautifully written.

Inside this book are summaries of the main gods to remember, a glossary of names, objects and places – which is a very helpful reference point – and stories from the creation of the worlds to the destruction of them (Ragnarok).  Most stories follow the adventures of Odin, Thor and Loki although there are many different gods, giants and monsters throughout the book.  These stories tell of how the worlds were created and where the first gods came from; the origin of Thor’s hammer; why Odin only has one eye, and what that has got to do with his immense knowledge and wisdom; how earthquakes are caused by a chained up Loki; and how many times monsters have tried to marry Freya but failed.

I really enjoyed reading these stories and learning about a mythology I didn’t know much about.  I especially enjoyed learning about how different the real myths are from the Marvel comics version!  I would strongly recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn the basics of Norse mythology is a way that is fun and exciting to read.

Review

Scoop, Evelyn Waugh

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When I was first given this book as a Christmas present, I wasn’t quite sure who Evelyn Waugh was.  I trusted the recommendation and the Observer review on the back described it as ‘the funniest novel ever written about journalism’ so I decided it was a good reading choice for bus journeys and in between coursework writing.

Scoop focuses on a particular newspaper, the Daily Beast, and satirically narrates the lengths that newspaper journalists and publishers will go in order to catch a story before anyone else.  The journalist chosen to represent the Daily Beast is countryman William Boot, who, through a case of mistaken identity, is caught up chasing a story about a possible war in the fictional African Republic of Ishmaelia.  The story achieves a large amount of its humour and plot through the constant switching of point of views, allowing the reader to explore more of the story than the characters themselves.  It is not until the second chapter that the reader is allowed to meet William Boot.  Before that point, the story seems to follow a John Courteney Boot, creating the comedy of errors element.

The novel contains many codes and vernacular used by the journalists to shorten telegrams and communicate quickly.  At first, like William Boot, I found it quite difficult to understand these messages but as the story went on, I tuned into them.  These indecipherable codes, and the way the journalists spend all their companies’ money on food, drink and souvenirs, really help to lightheartedly satirise the journalists and the industry as a whole.

It is worth remembering the time period that the novel is written in when reading the depictions of Ishmaelia.  It was written in 1938 when the British Empire began to slowly give back power to the countries they controlled.  This lead to many wars between those countries and the British, and even civil wars within the countries.  In this novel, Waugh includes a detailed account of the fictional country’s history and politics which reflects the view that British and European people had on Africa at the time.  Although I found some parts slightly uncomfortable to read considering the society we live in today, it does offer an insight into Waugh’s society and what they deemed acceptable.

Overall, Scoop was a funny and enjoyable read.  Despite being quite a short novel, the detailed accounts of Ishmaelia and the sections of coded telegrams makes it less easy to digest quickly but this doesn’t ruin the reading experience at all.

Review

Doing It!, Hannah Witton

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I had been waiting for this book for months!  I pre-ordered it as soon as I could, last year and had been watching the development of the book on Hannah Witton’s social media.  As I expected, this book was amazing!  I devoured it within two evenings and I am so glad I read it.

Hannah is a Youtuber and blogger who creates content mostly about sex, relationships and feminism.  I’ve been watching her videos for over a year now and have thoroughly enjoyed what she does and have been quite inspired by it.  It always pleased me how open she was about sex and relationships and how much she supported the campaign to improve SRE (sex and relationships education) in schools, and even make it compulsory throughout England and Wales.  It is something I am also passionate about and signed the petition to force the government to take action on it.

This is her first book and acts as an educational and inspirational tool to help create an open dialogue on these issues for people aged 14 and over.   It is full of anecdotes (both funny and embarrassing), information and helpful advice.  Witton has even included sections written by her friends, family, other bloggers and Youtubers and experts.  This helps make the content of the book more diverse and meaningful for more people.  I really admired how personal some of the anecdotes were.  By sharing her own stories, Witton has created the opportunity to break down some of the barriers in dialogue about sex and relationships.  Only good things can come from more open communication for young people on these issues.

I have always taken an interest in this topic, but more so recently.  This has led me to read books such as Sara Pascoe’s Animal and Laura Bates’ Girl Up.  Like those books, Doing It! has only reaffirmed by beliefs about the importance of educating young people properly on issues surrounding sex, gender, relationships and consent.  I would strongly recommend this book (and the other two I have just mentioned) to anyone who wishes to learn more about their body or the issues I listed above, or anyone who is simply passionate about the topics like me and Hannah Witton.

Review

Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman

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After reading Trigger Warning earlier this year, I was inspired to read Neil Gaiman’s other short story collections.  This one, Smoke and Mirrors, was his first.  I bought it soon after reading Trigger Warning alongside Fragile Things, his other book of short stories.

Most of the stories are thrilling and creepy.  Most are loosely themed on the idea of magic and illusion, and how they are created.  A few stories have this theme very explicitly used (including a story about an author inspired by Victorian magic tricks to write short stories whilst struggling with a film script in Hollywood) although all have some element of magic or fantasy included.  Some are humorous, some are not so humorous.

As always, I really enjoyed reading Gaiman’s writing.  I enjoyed the variety of content and forms of the stories.  Some are based on well-known fairy tales and stories, including a retelling of Beowulf with a werewolf hero and a monstrous sea creature.  Another is a twisted take on Snow White which suggests that maybe Snow White is not as innocent as it seems.  It portrays Snow White as a savage vampire-like creature who forces the Queen, her stepmother, to stop her and protect her kingdom.

Overall, it was another fantastic read from Gaiman.