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Thursday, 13 July 2017

Review: The Day of the Triffids

The Day of the Triffids The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A disturbing view of what humans become should society break down - basically, they do whatever is needed to survive. I think what Wyndham does really well is not to be too judgmental about how people try to carry on after a catastrophe, weighing up the pros and cons of every approach.

Given that it's written in the 1950s, I expected the book to be a bit sexist (men in charge, rescuing women etc) but I was surprised at how well-rounded and competent the main female characters were portrayed to be. There's even a great speech, from a man obviously, about the need for women to step up to the plate and learn how to do the traditional male jobs (these days it would very much come under the category of mansplaining, but it's better than nothing).

What I really disliked is the notion that the majority of the population going blind (not a spoiler) would be a society-ending event. Yes, there would be panic and chaos initially but I think people would learn to adapt eventually and things would get vaguely back to normal. In fariness, as is pointed out later in the book, the whole killer plant thing doesn't help matters. But, ultimately it's suggesting that disability equals helplessness - which is a problematic view to say the least.

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Friday, 7 July 2017

Review: A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book is apparently now out of print (I had to buy my copy from an online second-hand bookshop; I was reading it for my book group) and it quickly becomes apparent why - it's really racist. Black people are referred to as "negroes" and are generally portrayed to be ignorant and childlike (with questionable morals). There's even one use of the "n" word. I know that this was written in less enlightened times (1929), but it makes for uncomfortable reading.

I am not sure if this is meant to be a children's book or an adult book that just happens to have children as the protagonists, but it certainly has dark themes. I'd certainly agree with the view that it's a precursor to Lord of the Flies (ie, what happens when usual social conventions are not enforced).

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Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Review: Bedlam: London and Its Mad

Bedlam: London and Its Mad Bedlam: London and Its Mad by Catharine Arnold
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting review of how people with mental health problems have been managed over the centuries, with a focus on London's most infamous asylum - Bedlam. Depressingly (no pun intended), how well the "insane" were treated seemed to completely depend on who was in charge of the asylum at at the time. For every enlightened practitioner, an arrogant one seemed to follow. Today - I didn't actually realise it was still going - Bedlam (now Bethlem Royal Hospital) offers the best available care for people with mental health problems. But unfortunately, as is well documented, society's approach to mental health still leaves a lot to be desired.

I do feel a bit guilty about giving the book only three stars - I would give three and a half if I could. The writing falters at times (it occasionally reads like a lightweight newspaper feature rather than a history book) and there's certainly some waffle here and there. But, overall, I thought it was a good read.

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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Review: Blue Genes

Blue Genes Blue Genes by Val McDermid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Predictable and cheesy, but very well written. McDermid's skill is to keep you engaged despite the blatantly obvious plot twists and (in fairness, often acknowledged) bad jokes. Plus, Kate Brannigan, her boyfriend Richard, and her motley crew of friends are such a likeable bunch of characters that you're willing to forgive a lot.

However, there was one bit of the story that was so implausible that I genuinely thought it would turn out to be revealed to the bunkum that it was (it wasn't). I won't go into detail because that would spoil the plot but suffice to say that should you Google this particular plot point, you'll find that it still just seen as something that might happen in the distant future - a good 20 years after the book was written.

A series focused on female wisecracking PI who solves crimes that the entire Manchester police force can't seem to crack was never going to be that centred in reality, but I thought this stretched artistic license too far.

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Sunday, 25 June 2017

Favourite books of the year so far..

Given that we are now halfway through the year, I (like pretty much every other book blogger/vlogger) decided to compile a list of the best books I've read during the last six months. Of the 28 books I've read since January, to be honest, there have been many that I didn't enjoy or can't even remember reading (see my earlier post A frustrating reading year). But, I have managed to come up with five that I actually rated five stars on Goodreads - so, in alphabetical order (according to the author's surname), they are as follows:  

MauriceMaurice by E.M. Forster
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A wonderful and courageous (given that it was written in 1914) novel. There were definitely some moments of implausibility, but you could say that about many a book that features a heterosexual love story.

What is painfully realistic is the torture that Maurice goes through realising he is "different" and the loneliness he feels because of that difference. His attempts to overcome his difference (i.e. his sexuality) are utterly heartbreaking.

There's a line in the book that England would never legalise homosexuality because the English have an inclination to ignore human nature. It's comforting to know that Forster was wrong on that score (he did actually live long enough to see homosexuality be decriminalised). While things are far from perfect in terms of accepting that some people are gay (or bi or don't otherwise fit into the heterosexual bracket), we have certainly come a long way.

 The Emancipation of BThe Emancipation of B by Jennifer Kavanagh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I bought this because I know and like the author, Jennifer, so wanted to support her work. My plan was that I would be nice about it on Goodreads if liked it but keep quiet about it if I thought it was rubbish. What was I not expecting was to love it but I did.

This book is amazing. I was genuinely hooked from the first page. Most authors if their plot, as this book does, revolved around a modern-day hermit, would make the said hermit mad or bad - or probably both. But Jennifer's B is neither; he's someone who is fulfilling a lifelong desire for complete solitude. The story focuses on how solitude enables him to truly know himself and to truly understand his life. However, it is also reassuringly realistic. B struggles with the lack of contact with others and, as you might expect, with the sheer boredom of it all.

As an introvert, I've often want to shut the world out - in fact, today, I opted for staying at home by myself to read this book rather than go to a social event where, gasp, I might have to speak to people. Therefore, it was fascinating to read something that explores the idea of total solitude and, more importantly, how it wasn't necessarily a terrible thing.

I am know I biased because I consider Jennifer a friend (with a lowercase f; she'll get the reference), but I think this book probably would have been nominated for award had she'd been more of a "name". She's known as author in Quaker circles and is known for work as a literary agent, but it's a shame she's not better known as a novelist in more general circles. Her work is really interesting and deserves more recognition.


Annie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family SecretAnnie's Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An absolutely fascinating story of how Luxenburg tries to find out what happened to his mother's "secret" sister Annie - only finding out about her existence a few month's before his mother's death. More than that it explores why his mother kept her sister hidden and how a woman, as Annie was, could be committed to a mental asylum and essentially forgotten about.

I think the book also taps into a fear that you have when someone you love dies - did you really known them? Will some secret come out that changes how you view them? How Luxenberg comes to terms with the fact that his beloved mother kept a major secret from him and his siblings (and possibly his father) is another intriguing element of the book.

The only downside of this book is that it's difficult to get hold of in the UK (I had to order it via Amazon)


My Own Story: Inspiration for the major motion picture SuffragetteMy Own Story: Inspiration for the major motion picture Suffragette by Emmeline Pankhurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Emmeline Pankhurst, these days, has a reputation for being stern and deeply unforgiving of those who have the temerity to disagree with her - a reputation that's probably deserved given that she cut off all ties with two of her daughters (even packing one off to Australia).

But, what this book shows is that she was undeniably a great leader who galvanised women into action. While her militancy tactics may or may not have done more harm than good in getting woman the vote, she certainly was instrumental in raising the issue in public consciousness.

I can't help but feel that, like the double standards she so often refers to in this book. history would have treated her differently had been male. There's been many a male leader with just as many personality flaws as Pankhurst but who are remembered for their achievements rather than the fact they were difficult customers.

 The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His SisterThe Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister by Cathy Rentzenbrink
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was totally engrossed with this heartbreaking account of a sister dealing with her brother's accident and the aftermath from the moment I read the first chapter. So much so that I sacked off doing usual Saturday morning chores and spent time reading this instead.

Anyone was ever lost anyone they love will relate to this book - whether their loved one died suddenly or died after a long illness (or in the brother's case, died after being in a permanent vegetative state). The decisions that Cathy and her parents have to make are torturous: if they need to accept all hope is gone and their son/brother will never recover, if they should believe that he is "there" in some form (even if he can't communicate the fact), and what they action they should take if he really is gone. Does make you realise that just because you can keep someone "alive" with modern medicine, you sometimes perhaps shouldn't (note I am not talking about someone who has been left severely disabled; I am talking about someone who has no signs of conscious thought).

What Rentzenbrink does so poignantly is to showcase hard the grief process is, particularly when you're grieving for someone who is technically still alive. The recriminations about what you did and did not do, that you should be coping better, or that you should be living your life a certain way. She doesn't really provide any answers to these questions (because there are none); just that you need to be kind to yourself and learn to accept you'll never be "over it".

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Review: The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister

The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister The Last Act of Love: The Story of My Brother and His Sister by Cathy Rentzenbrink
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was totally engrossed with this heartbreaking account of a sister dealing with her brother's accident and the aftermath from the moment I read the first chapter. So much so that I sacked off doing usual Saturday morning chores and spent time reading this instead.

Anyone was ever lost anyone they love will relate to this book - whether their loved one died suddenly or died after a long illness (or in the brother's case, died after being in a permanent vegetative state). The decisions that Cathy and her parents have to make are torturous: if they need to accept all hope is gone and their son/brother will never recover, if they should believe that he is "there" in some form (even if he can't communicate the fact), and what they action they should take if he really is gone. Does make you realise that just because you can keep someone "alive" with modern medicine, you sometimes perhaps shouldn't (note I am not talking about someone who has been left severely disabled; I am talking about someone who has no signs of conscious thought).

What Rentzenbrink does so poignantly is to showcase hard the grief process is, particularly when you're grieving for someone who is technically still alive. The recriminations about what you did and did not do, that you should be coping better, or that you should be living your life a certain way. She doesn't really provide any answers to these questions; just that you need to be kind to yourself and learn to accept you'll never be "over it".

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Friday, 23 June 2017

Review: Howards End

Howards End Howards End by E.M. Forster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having never read anything by Forster before this year, this is the second book I've read of his in as many months.

What Forster does so brilliantly is create utterly believable characters. The Wilcoxes, the Schlegels and the Blasts could so easily have been caricatures of the classes that they are meant to represent - upper, middle, and lower middle - but they're all well rounded. I loved that they were all flawed in their own ways but equally had redeem ming features.

Obviously this is a book about class and I don't really have the literary know-how to analyse exactly what Forester is trying to say. But, to my mind anyway, its core message is that we are all a product of the society we're brought up in. Something that is still true today.

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