Category Archives: book review

Shelf Indulgence – April 2019

Books I read in April 2019

Rima D. Apple’s Mothers & Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding 1890-1950 has been on my bookshelves for several years. Shortly after I moved to Scotland in 2005 I attended a really interesting guest lecture she gave on the history of infant feeding and I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since. She outlines the industry, medical, and cultural factors which led to the increase in formula feeding in America during the period. I must admit when I was reading about the various concoctions that were cobbled together for babies who were deemed to be failing to thrive, I was amazed that any of them survived at all! As well as the expected dominance of big business, one of the main take-homes I got from this was the incredible paternalism of the medical profession, wanting to maintain control over the process of infant feeding and position themselves, not mothers, as the experts. 4/5.

Well, my plan was to read a chapter a day of Emma Mitchell’s The Wild Remedy for 2 weeks. That happened for the first couple of chapters (as I was reading just before going to sleep). But then I picked it up one day during the day, and I ended up reading the rest of the book in a single sitting. It’s gorgeous. The author details, month by month, her walks in the countryside (mainly local to her, in the Cambridgeshire Fens, but occasionally further afield), and the impact that it has on her mental health (she lives with severe depression). During the year that she was writing this she had a particularly prolonged and serious depressive episode, which she doesn’t shy away from, but her writing is exquisite, and the importance of the outdoors for her wellbeing is made clear (whilst being very emphatic that she is not saying ditch the meds and hug a tree). Illustrated throughout with the author’s photos, paintings and sketches, it is a simply beautiful book. 5*

Tara Westover’s Educated is a memoir that I’ve been picking up and putting down for several months now. By the end I couldn’t put it down though. This is the memoir of her childhood as one of the several children in an extreme Mormon family, and her eventual move away from the family (where she was supposedly home-schooled, although the reality was basically working for her dad’s scrapyard business and trying to avoid the many horrific accidents that the various family members have (whilst avoiding either insurance or mainstream medicine)) to higher education and beyond.

What was clear from the very beginning was that Tara Westover is an extraordinarily gifted writer. She really has a way with words, and it was very easy to picture the places and people and events she was describing. She is also not afraid of ‘less is more’, and whilst there were plenty of horrific things going on, it never felt like she was describing events, arguments, fights, accidents or whatever just for the sake of it. Having said that, although I honestly wouldn’t call this a ‘misery memoir’, the first half of the book (which deals with her childhood before she leaves home to attend Brigham Young University) is pretty relentless, and I think that’s probably why I needed to keep taking breathers from it. The second half of the book details her time at BYU, figuring out a lot of things (like how to take exams and write essays, and events such as the Holocaust) that she’d never ever heard of before, and gradually finding her place and her feet and her voice, and then to her subsequent postgraduate experience at Cambridge and Harvard. This is the section I found really interesting, although here the ‘less is more’ didn’t work quite so well for me – there were a few places where the transformation from clueless undisciplined kid to serious scholar seemed to happen quite quickly without a lot of detail, as well as her recovery from what sounded like quite a serious mental breakdown, and so had to be taken on trust, whereas I’d have liked a bit more about how she got from A to B. What I did really like about this section though was how she described her relationship with her family evolving over time, and how the relationships with individual family members changed over time (not always for the better). That evolution over time was much more clearly portrayed, with fewer gaps.

Overall though, this is a fantastic memoir which is well worth the time, and a worthy 5* from me. It really is as good as the hype, in my view. 5/5.

Hooray for the library, thanks to them I found Julia Blackburn’s Thin Paths: journeys in and around an Italian mountain village, and it was gorgeous. Part memoir, part oral history of the elderly residents of the remote Italian village near the French border that she and her husband made their home. She details gradually getting to know the residents, and then gradually hearing, and getting their permission to write, their memories of WW2, partisans, Fascists, greedy landowners, and the other people that lived and worked there over the years. It’s gentle and beautiful. 4.5/5.

Dan Papworth’s The Lives Around Us: daily meditations for nature connection was the book I chose to read for Lent this year. He is a member of Cheltenham Forest Church, where a couple of my friends are also involved (in fact they appear in the acknowledgements). This book features 40 daily readings, each focusing on a different animal, plant or mineral found in the UK. He explains about the life of the creature, and also features a passage from the Bible and a section on prayer and reflection. It’s nice and crusty, and right up my street!

I did wish that the Bible passages he had chosen, particularly for the last week, had been more reflective of the Easter story (so the Last Supper, Gethsemane, etc), rather than more general passages, although that does mean that this book isn’t just restricted to Lent but can be used throughout the year. What raised it up for me from a 4* read was the concluding chapter, where he looks more generally at the links between Christian spirituality and nature, and our responsibilities (particularly given environmental degradation and climate change) and I’ve added an extra half star just for that. 4.5/5.

Journalist and academic Timothy Garton Ash writes in The File: A Personal History about discovering his Stasi (East German secret police) file, and sets out to track down the informers and Stasi officers who were monitoring him during his student days in West and East Berlin in the 1970s and 80s. It’s not just a dry ‘he said, she said’ description though, but musing on memory, morality, nation, history, not to mention the secret service activities of the UK state, as well as the actual content of the file. The 2009 afterword (the book was originally published in 1997) has a very interesting discussion about present-day surveillance and politics, and the relevance of the Stasi to this question (although now, 10 years after the Afterword, even that feels a bit out of date, with him talking about “personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace” – although plenty of it is pretty prescient still). A very interesting read. 4.5/5.

Upbeat: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq, by Paul MacAlindin, is the sometimes inspirational, sometimes frustrating, often exhausting tale of the formation of the NYOI, from the initial idea in 2008 to its final summer school and concert in France in 2014. The author was the musical director, and much of the vision and energy required to form and maintain the orchestra, when they were only meeting once a year for a summer school and having to negotiate the complex politics of having players from all ethnic groups and backgrounds and languages, was down to him pretty much single-handedly. Each of the summer schools (the first few in Iraqi Kurdistan, then Beethovenfest in Germany, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and finally in Aix en Provence in France, plus the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get them to the US the following year), are described in detail, plus the behind the scenes activity the rest of the year. The final few chapters detail the achievements and learning from the years of NYOI.

What the author does really well here is portray the frustrations and lows of the story, but also the moments of inspiration and breakthrough, and the growth of everyone involved. Whilst it’s uplifting, it’s also realistic, and I think that’s what I liked most about it. 4/5.

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Shelf Indulgence – March 2019

Books I read in March 2019

The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz by Aaron Swartz is a bit out of my comfort zone in terms of subject matter, but was really interesting. Swartz was a young internet ‘hacktivist’ who was involved in setting up both RSS and reddit, and who eventually was charged after making vast numbers of academic journal articles freely available and threatened with a 35 year jail term. He committed suicide before he could be sentenced, at the age of 26.

The writings here consist of blog posts, longer essays and speeches, and the earliest ones date back to when he was 14 years old. It is clear that he was a very intelligent and talented young man, and even when I didn’t agree with him (or understand him, as in the collection of writings on computers), I found him a very engaging writer who often was quite compelling. The most impressive section, in my view, is the section on politics, including an extended seminar he gave outlining the workings of American politics, in particular the various decision-making processes and the ways that bills do (or more often don’t) get passed. That was fascinating, and also quite scary. I’d love to read what he’d have made of the last couple of years, and it’s a tragedy that his voice was lost too young. Although I’d say I was largely sympathetic to a lot of what he was saying, there were a few topics where I felt that his conclusions went way beyond where I would go (this is particularly true of his thoughts on free downloading, and also on ‘unschooling’), but I was always interested in seeing where he was going with his arguments. 4/5.

Calum’s Road by Roger Hutchinson is a fantastic book. I bought it a few years ago while on holiday on the Isle of Skye. It tells the true story of a remarkable man on the neighbouring island of Raasay, who after decades’ worth of petitions to the local council to extend the main road on the island had fallen on deaf ears, decided to take matters into his own hands and build the road himself. By the time he finished it (well into his 60s), he and his wife were the only residents left in the north of Raasay, and since their deaths the north of the island has remained uninhabited. Calum had hoped when he started building the road that it would encourage the then population to stay, and once they had left, that it would encourage new crofters to come into the area. Sadly that didn’t happen, but the road is still there, now officially known as Calum’s Road, and this is its extraordinary story. A wonderful and inspiring man, and his story is really well-written here. There’s a brief summary of the story here. 4.5/5.

Chris Moon’s One Step Beyond is one of my longer-standing TBRs, bought from the QPD (postal!) monthly book club, which I was in in the late 90s/early 2000s. I bought it after seeing him on a talk show (I suspect either Wogan or Parkinson) plugging the book. Chris Moon left the army and started working for the HALO Trust in mine clearance, first in Cambodia and then in Mozambique, in the mid-90s. In Cambodia he and his team were kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge, but managed to make it out alive. While he was working in Mozambique he stepped on a mine, and lost part of his right leg and his right hand. He nearly died, but made a remarkable recovery and ended up running the London Marathon. That’s where this edition of the book ends – I gather that a subsequent edition features his subsequent running of the Marathon de Sables, a 137 mile race across the Sahara.

There was a lot of interesting information about the mine clearance programmes, and this plus the latter chapters detailing his treatment and rehab were the most interesting for me. The kidnapping in Cambodia took up about a third of the book – they were captive for a few days only, but this section is told in minute-by-minute detail, which did give a sense of the tension and stress and foreboding they must have all gone through, but did also make the book drag a bit. In contrast, the only things he really details about the Mozambique work is the day of the accident. He’s clearly a very impressive person – having survived the kidnapping where everybody assumed he’d be killed, and then horrific injuries after the mine blast which would have killed most people, to have survived at all, never mind achieved all he has, is testament to his strength of character (facetiously, with luck like that it also made me think I’d like him to choose my lottery numbers). It took me a while to get into – he writes throughout in the present tense, which I found a bit jarring, and I think I also found him a bit intimidating. Not in a bad way, he’s clearly a nice guy with a great sense of humour, but it was just going through so much and making so many right decisions in extreme adversity made him feel a bit on a pedestal. I’m not explaining that very well – suffice to say, I’m glad I’ve read the book, and I’d recommend it although I probably wouldn’t reread it. 3.5/5.

I don’t want to go to sleep! by Christopher Francis is a sweet picture book with simple and minimal words, that would be ideal to read to a pre-schooler before bed. A brother and sister don’t want to go to sleep, but the Moon tells them about all the dream-adventures they’ll have if they sleep. Cute. Pdf copy received from the publisher as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. 4/5.

Sally R. Munt’s Queer Attachments: The Cultural Politics of Shame is an academic book which I bought towards the end of my PhD (as shame was a theme which had emerged from my research), but which I never got the chance to do much more than skim at the time. The book looks at aspects of historical and contemporary culture (including TV programmes such as The Office, Queer as Folk, and Six Feet Under, the St Patrick’s Day parades in the US, and the art of Tracey Emin) and looks at how shame, as well as being a negative thing, can also be productive in forming identities and communities. This is done with particular reference to Irish, queer, and working class communities.

I found the book mostly very interesting (I particularly enjoyed the Six Feet Under chapter), although sometimes I did find the academese writing a bit dense – I suspect I’d have got a lot more out of this if I’d read it when I bought it when I was in a more academic frame of mind! Mostly though it was a thoughtful and interesting read, and I’m glad I got to read it eventually. 3.5/5.

I’m a sucker for a good book title pun, so was already favourably disposed towards Helen Russell’s The Year of Living Danishly (subtitled ‘Uncovering the secrets of the world’s happiest country’). The author is a journalist who was based in London and fully living the rat-race life, when her husband gets a job with Lego for a year and so they move to rural Jutland. She discovers that Denmark is regularly touted as the happiest country in the world in international surveys, and sets out to discover why. The book is a January to December look at various issues as they settle in and try to make sense of Danish traditions and see if living there really can make them happier.

Initially I thought I was going to be disappointed, and felt that the book was a bit superficial. However, a few months in she does start addressing the more negative side of Denmark (the everyday sexism, despite legal gender equality, and the growing rise of right-wing anti-immigrant parties) and then it felt much more balanced and realistic. About half way through the book they are visited by a Swiss friend, and the incident where they hoist the Swiss flag in his honour is hilarious (turns out Denmark has Rules about flag-raising).

I did feel sad in several places, that the move that they were able to make so easily (due to the UK being part of the European Union) is likely to be much harder (if our stupid politicians can ever get their act together, that is). Bah. 4/5.

In Siberia by Colin Thubron, one of my favourite travel writers, was every bit as good as the other books of his that I’ve read. He travelled east from the Urals in the late 90s, sometimes on the Trans-Siberian railway but not always, discovering the length and breadth of this vast unknown land. As usual with his books, we meet locals, experience life in the raw, and his descriptions are just beautiful, it was easy to picture what he was describing and there wasn’t a word out of place. Fabulous. 4.5/5.

I’ve been binge-listening to the Bestseller Experiment podcast for the last several months, and it is one of my favourite writing podcasts out there. The premise is that the two Marks set out to write, edit, market and sell a book that became a bestseller, all within a year, and share the journey in the first year of their podcast, which features tons of writing and publishing industry advice from both indie and traditionally published authors and publishers. Back to Reality, by Mark Stay & Mark Oliver, is the book that was the end result. The first thing I have to say is that this really isn’t the kind of book I normally read – I guess it basically falls into the ‘up-lit’, women’s contemporary fiction type genre – and so despite loving the podcast I wasn’t actually holding my breath that I’d like the book all that much. However, I was increasingly pleasantly surprised, and would thoroughly recommend it as a light-hearted and funny read. This is the amazon blurb:

Jo’s world is about to change forever, and it’s about time

Her marriage is on auto-pilot, daughter hates her, job sucks and it’s not even Tuesday.

As Jo’s life implodes, a freak event hurls her back to ‘90s Los Angeles where, in a parallel universe, she’s about to hit the big time as a rock star.

Jo has to choose between her dreams and her family in an adventure that propels her from London to Hollywood then Glastonbury, the world’s greatest music festival.

In her desperate quest, Jo encounters a disgraced guru, a movie star with a fetish for double-decker buses, and the biggest pop star in the world… who just happens to want to kill her.

Back to Reality is a funny, heartwarming story about last chances, perfect for fans of Rowan Coleman and Helen Fielding.

It’s well-plotted, fast-paced and funny, and I could absolutely see it as a fun summer movie. 4.5/5.

Shelf Indulgence – Feb 2019

Books I read in Feb 2019

Tim Peake is the British astronaut who spent 6 months on the International Space Station in 2016, and did an amazing job of enthusing the country as a whole about space and science. Ask An Astronaut is a collection of all the various questions he’s been asked since, and it covers everything from astronaut recruitment, to training, to living on the ISS, and returning to Earth. It includes the obvious question of course (ie, how do you go to the toilet on the ISS?), but even though it is presented in a very accessible and readable way, the main thing that I have been left with having read this is the sheer amazing amount of scientific knowledge that has gone into building, running and maintaining life on the ISS (and space exploration in general). A very good (and not too taxing) read. 4/5.

Rabbit & Bear: Attack of the Snack is one of several kids’ books I got from the library to look at things like story length, level etc (I’ve got one pre-school picture book on the go, but want to see about writing for slightly older kids too). Although I’ve not come across the author Julian Gough before, Jim Field is one of my favourite illustrators (we have all of his Oi! children’s books and they are a big hit in this house!), and Neil Gaiman has given a glowing quote for the back cover, so I was looking forward to this very much. And it didn’t disappoint! This is actually the third book in the series, and I’ll be looking out for the other ones. Rabbit and Bear are two friends, and in this book their tranquil life is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a small, dazed baby owl. Bear wants to help, but Rabbit immediately remembers his dad’s tales of scary huge owls, and instantly jumps to the conclusion that the owl is dangerous and needs to be imprisoned. Basically this is a fable about ‘fake news’, and about how easy it is to be deceived by loud voices and people jumping up and down labelling ‘others’ (there’s even a fleeting, but unmissable, throwaway nod to the current occupant of the White House). This does have a happy ending, with various of the animals realising the error of their ways, and they all end up as (slightly wiser) friends in the end. Highly recommended! 4.5/5.

Second-Hand Time is the most recent book by Nobel prizewinner Svetlana Alexievich. It’s the first book of hers I’ve read, although I do have The Unwomanly Face of War on my TBR pile and I’m now keen to get to that too. This book is an oral history, she interviewed dozens of people throughout the former Soviet Union about their memories of the Soviet time and the end of communism, and their thoughts on contemporary life in the new post-Soviet countries. Nearly all of it is basically verbatim what the people tell her, with almost no commentary or interruption by the author; that took a little bit of getting used to, but I found I really liked that, and I think it shows a brave writer who doesn’t have a fragile enough ego that she has to keep getting in the way. The people she spoke with ranged from survivors of the gulags, students who’d taken part in the demonstrations in the early 90s, parents whose children had died either through suicide or conflict, as well as people from many of the various republics that are now independent but at the time had been part of the Soviet Union (Armenia, Tajikistan, Belarus, Ukraine, etc as well as Russia). There were quite a few common themes, even though the stories themselves were all highly individual – domestic abuse, alcohol, the kitchen as a place of communal discussion, salami as the symbol of ‘freedom’, and many others. I really liked how she interviewed people from all sorts of different backgrounds and generations, this gave a really rich picture of the Soviet Union and what has followed it. I would have liked to have heard an account from someone from one of the Baltic states, as their experience of the Soviet Union would have probably been quite different again. But that’s a small criticism, as the book as is is already epic in both scope and size (t’s over 700 pages, so quite a chunkster). A very interesting book, and I really want to read some of her other work now too. The translation I thought read really well, so hats off to the translator, Bela Shayevich. 4.5/5.

Dana Stabenow is a well-known crime and thriller author, but she was also, for 5 years in the early 2000s, a columnist for ‘Alaska Magazine’. Alaska Traveler is a collection of her columns over that time, and details travels and events all over Alaska. It just sounds amazing there, I’d love to go! I loved her easy-going style, her obvious enjoyment, and her appreciation of everything she saw. 4/5.

Three Things I’d Tell My Younger Self is a short little freebie ebook that I picked up last year. The instigator is the author Joanna Cannon – she wrote one of my favourite fiction books of a few years ago, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and this I think was a bit of a ‘magnet’ for her new book, Three Things About Elsie (which I’ve already got on my TBR). It consists of advice collected by Joanna Cannon from people in various walks of life that she looks up to (ranging from other authors, publishers, doctors, and even her mum), written to the authors’ younger selves. It was published I think on the day that A’level results came out in England, and most of them seemed to be variations on the themes of ‘don’t worry it’ll all be fine eventually’, ‘don’t spend ages worrying what other people think of you’, ‘your choices aren’t set in stone’, ‘it’s worth waiting’ etc etc. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but a nice way to while away 3/4 of an hour, and there’s an opening chapter from Three Things About Elsie included too. 3/5.

Comradely Greetings is a short collection of letters exchanged between philosopher Slavoj Zizek, and Pussy Riot member Nadya Tolokonnikova, whilst the latter was serving her 2 year sentence in a Russian labour camp after their ‘punk protest’ against the Putin regime in the cathedral in Red Square in 2011. Initially the two discuss philosophy in the context of repressive politics, and then the final two letters are after Nadya is released, and she can be a bit more open about the situation and conditions in the labour camps, as well as her post-imprisonment activism. That was the bit I found most interesting. She included some interesting thoughts on the fate of Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who ended up living in Russia where he was unable to speak freely. Tolokonnikova (herself a philosophy graduate) is more than able to hold her own in discussions with Zizek. 4/5.

First Generations: The Stirling Area from Mesolithic to Roman Times is one of this month’s library books, and is written by Lorna Main, who at the time of publication (2001) was Stirling Council’s Archaeology Officer. The book details the various archaeological finds in the area, and how the area developed in terms of population, trade, farming etc etc. 3.5/5.

Shelf Indulgence – Jan 2019

As well as writing I’ve really increased my reading over the past few years – primarily thanks to challenges over at LibraryThing. It occurs to me that blogging my reviews here as well won’t hurt (especially if I liked the book!), not least because it will be something that I can easily blog about regularly. I’m going to aim for monthly posts of what I’ve finished reading in that month, starting from the beginning of this year, so this will be the first of three catch-up posts.

What I read in Jan 2019

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, 30th anniversary edition was one of the books I bought in the final week of 2018. I had bought Stephen King’s On Writing with my Christmas money, and so kobo is now recommending loads and loads of writing craft books to me. This one was cheap, so I added it to the basket. The author was a columnist for many years with the New York Herald, and also taught creative writing at Yale and New College in New York. Some of the book I found a bit fussy (basically some of the grammar/word choice fussiness didn’t work for me, possibly because I’m fussy about different grammar/word choices! Although I did get his point!), but other chapters on specific topic types (sports writing, arts/culture, etc) were better, and it was worth the money for the chapter on memoir writing alone. This isn’t a how-to book (you won’t find writing exercises here) so much as the author’s thoughts on different genres and types of non-fiction and on the writing craft. It’s very readable though, and I did enjoy where he took a newspaper article he’d written and annotated it to show why he made the decisions he did. 4/5.

I read poet Jackie Kay’s collection Fiere last year, where she used her poetry to beautifully discuss identity, adoption, Scotland, Nigeria, and family, amongst other things, and I discovered then that it was published around the same sort of time as her autobiography, Red Dust Road, which covered the same sort of topics. I’m so pleased I got to read this book too – this is her account of growing up knowing she was adopted, of her adoptive family, of her search for her birth parents, of being both Scottish and Nigerian, of writing, of racism, of family, of identity. I thought it was brilliant – what could have been quite heavy was written with a light touch, and was both profound and in places very funny. I know I share a name and initial with her – I wish I shared her writing talent too! Fabulous. 5/5.

Robert Macfarlane is one of my favourite authors, in one of my favourite non-fiction genres (broadly: nature writing). The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot details walks that he took primarily throughout the countryside of England and Scotland, following ancient paths, but also with chapters of walks in Palestine, Spain, and Tibet. It took me a couple of chapters to get into the rhythm of it, but by then I was hooked, this is beautiful writing and really brought the places alive. It included a couple of chapters on ‘sea paths’ around the Hebrides (so involved sailing as well as walking). There were a couple of places that I’d not heard of – I really really want to see and experience the Broomway on the Essex coast (although whether I’d dare walk it, I don’t know). Gorgeous. 4.5/5.

Asterix and Cleopatra sees Asterix, Obelix and Getafix in Egypt, helping to build a palace for Caesar in 3 months in order that Cleopatra can win her bet with Caesar that the Egyptians aren’t lazy has-beens. This has all the usual fare – superhuman strength from Getafix’s magic potion, hapless Romans, pirates in a losing battle with the Gauls at sea, Obelix trying to sneak some of the potion – another solid and reliable book in the series. 3.5/5.