Tag Archives: non fiction

Teaser Tuesday – 7th May, 2019 #Brainfluffbookblog #TeaserTuesday

Standard

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by The Purple Booker.
Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This is my choice of the day:

The Art of Noticing: Rediscover What Really Matters To You by Rob Walker
34% Oliveros’s version of listening encompasses remembered sounds heard in dreams, even imagined or invented sounds. Elsewhere she referred to auralization (a term borrowed from architectural acoustics) as a kind of sonic corollary to the visual spin we tend to put on imagination. ‘Listening is a lifetime practise that depends on accumulated experiences with sound,’ she asserted, one that encompasses ‘the whole space-time continuum of sounds.’

BLURB: Distracted? Overwhelmed? Feel like your attention is constantly being pulled in different directions? Learn how to steal it back. Accessible and inspiring, this book features 131 surprising and innovative exercises to help you tune out white noise, get unstuck from your screen and manage daily distractions.
Make small yet impactful changes and bring focus to the things and people that are most important to you.

This book jumped out at me – I’ve been more than a tad stressed, recently and am trying to cultivate the art of mindfulness. There are a number of interesting exercises throughout this book – I just need to get a chance to put some of these into practice… In the meantime, it’s well written and informative without too much tech-speak – just enough to make it interesting. Review to follow.

Advertisements

My Outstanding Reads of the Year – 2018 #Brainfluffbookblogger #MyOutstandingReadsoftheYear2018

Standard

It’s been another great reading year with loads of choice within my favourite genres, so I ended up reading 162 books with 125 reviews published and another 23 in hand. In no particular order, these are the books that have stood out from the rest in the best way. Some of them might not even have garnered a 10 from me at the time – but all those included have lodged in my head and won’t go away. And none of this nonsense about a top 10 – I can’t possibly cope with a limit like that.

The Stone Sky – Book 3 The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The whole trilogy is an extraordinary read – a mash-up between fantasy and science fiction and sections of it written in second person pov. It shouldn’t work, but it does because her imagination and prose fuses together to make this more than a sum of its parts. See my review.

 

Hyperspace Trap by Christopher G. Nuttall
I like this author’s writing anyway and I’m a sucker for a well-told space opera adventure, so I read a fair few. However, something about this one has stuck – I often find myself thinking about those passengers on the space liner and the crew looking after them, while marooned by a malign presence. See my review.

 

The Cold Between – A Central Corps novel by Elizabeth Bonesteel
This is the start of a gripping space opera adventure with interestingly nuanced characters, whose reactions to the unfolding situation around them just bounces off the page. I love it when space opera gets all intelligent and grown-up… See my review.

 

The Green Man’s Heir by Juliet E. McKenna
This fantasy adventure is set in contemporary Britain with the protagonist very much hampered by his fae ancestry and trying to discover more about that side of his family. It gripped me from the first page and wouldn’t let go until the end, when I sulked for days afterwards because I wanted more. See my review.

 

Head On – Book 2 of the Lock In series by John Scalzi
This is such a smart, clever premise. The paralysed young protagonist is able to live a nearly-normal life because his consciousness is uploaded into a robot, when he pursues a career fighting crime. Science fiction murder mysteries are one of my favourite genres, when it’s done well – and this is a great example. See my review.

 

Before Mars – Book 3 of the Planetfall series by Emma Newman
This has been an outstanding series – and this tight-wound thriller is no exception. I love the fact that Newman tackles the subject of motherhood, which isn’t a subject that comes up all that often in science fiction. See my review.

 

Child I by Steve Tasane
I’ve been haunted by this book ever since I read it. It’s not long and the language is very simple. The little boy telling the story is bright and funny and not remotely self pitying. When I started reading it, I assumed it was set in a post-apocalyptic future – and then discovered that it was set right now and is the distilled experience of children from all over the world. And I wept. See my review.

 

The Wild Dead – Book 2 of The Bannerless Saga by Carrie Vaughn
This was the most delightful surprise. This is another murder mystery set in the future – this time in post-apocalyptic America once law and order has been re-established. I loved the atmosphere, the society and the above all, I fell in love with Enid, the no-nonsense, practical lawgiver sent to sort out the puzzle of a body of a girl that nobody appears to know. See my review.

 

The Great Alone by Kristen Hannah
As well as being a story of a family, this is also a homage to Alaska and a time when it was a wilder, less organised place. It isn’t one of my normal reads, but my mother sent me this one as she thought I’d love it – and, being my mum, she was right. See my review.

 

Fallen Princeborn: Stolen by Jean Lee
I’ve come to know the author from her amazing blog and was happy to read a review copy of her book – what I wasn’t prepared for was the way her powerful, immersive style sucked me right into the skin of the main character. This contemporary fantasy is sharp-edged, punchy and very memorable. See my review.

 

Eye Can Write: a memoir of a child’s silent soul emerging by Jonathan Bryan
This is another amazing read, courtesy of my lovely mum. And again, she was right. This is a non-fiction book, partly written by Jonathan’s mother and partly written by Jonathan himself, whose severe cerebral palsy locked him into his body, until he found a way to communicate with the outside world using one letter at a time. See my review.

 

Windhaven by George R.R. Martin and Lisa Tuttle
This remarkable colony world adventure is about a girl yearning to break into the closed community of flyers – and what happens when she does. I love a book all about unintended consequences and this intelligent, thought-provoking read thoroughly explores the problems, as well as the advantages of throwing open this elite corps to others. See my review.

 

Strange the Dreamer – Book 1 of Strange the Dreamer duology by Laini Taylor
I loved her first trilogy – but this particular book has her writing coming of age. The lyrical quality of her prose and her amazing imagination has her odd protagonist pinging off the page. See my review.

 

Battle Cruiser – Book 1 of the Lost Colonies series by B.V. Larson
This is just such fun. William Sparhawk is a rigidly proper young captain trying to make his way in the face of enmity from his superiors due to his family connections, when he’s pitchforked right into the middle of a ‘situation’ and after that, the tale takes off and buckets along with all sorts of twists and turns that has William becoming less rigid and proper… See my review.

 

Certain Dark Things by Sylvia Moreno-Garcia
That this author is a huge talent is a given – and what she does with a tale about a vampire on the run in a city that has declared it is a no-go area for the destructive creatures is extraordinary. Review to follow.

 

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas
I’ll be honest – I liked and appreciated the skill of this book as I read it, but I didn’t love it. The characters were too flawed and unappealing. But it won’t leave me alone. I find myself thinking about the premise and the consequences – and just how right the setup is. And a book that goes on doing that has to make the list, because it doesn’t happen all that often. Review to follow.

Are there any books here that you’ve read? And if so, do you agree with me? What are your outstanding reads for last year?

Review of Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew P. Walker

Standard

Given my husband’s diagnosis of severe sleep apnea and the difference the treatment from the sleep clinic has made to all aspects of his life, when I saw this book was available on NetGalley, I immediately requested it.

Sleep is one of the most important but least understood aspects of our life, wellness, and longevity. Until very recently, science had no answer to the question of why we sleep, or what good it served, or why we suffer such devastating health consequences when we don’t sleep. Compared to the other basic drives in life—eating, drinking, and reproducing—the purpose of sleep remained elusive. An explosion of scientific discoveries in the last twenty years has shed new light on this fundamental aspect of our lives. Now, preeminent neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker gives us a new understanding of the vital importance of sleep and dreaming. Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, restocks our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. Dreaming mollifies painful memories and creates a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge to inspire creativity.

Walker answers important questions about sleep: how do caffeine and alcohol affect sleep? What really happens during REM sleep? Why do our sleep patterns change across a lifetime? How do common sleep aids affect us and can they do long-term damage? Charting cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and synthesizing decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood, and energy levels; regulate hormones; prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; slow the effects of aging; increase longevity; enhance the education and lifespan of our children, and boost the efficiency, success, and productivity of our businesses. Clear-eyed, fascinating, and accessible, Why We Sleep is a crucial and illuminating book.

Normally I don’t include all the blurb, as it tends to give too much away. However, in this case I feel it nicely sums up exactly what this book is about. This was not a comfortable read. My husband’s snoring used to be epic – not only was it shredding his ability to sleep deeply, it also properly mucked up my sleep, too. It is still a mess and has been for a number of years. I have become accustomed to living reasonably happily on somewhere between four and five hours of sleep a night, and therefore it came as a very nasty shock to discover that I am probably compromising my immune system as well, as increasing my risk factor of incurring a range of nasty illnesses including Alzheimer’s and cancer.

However, the good news is that in addition to providing the scientific reasons why sleep is so important to us, Walker also provides a range of suggestions and tips so that those of us with really poor sleep hygiene have a chance to sort ourselves out. If you are a snorer, or sleep next one, find it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep for the recommended eight to nine hours a night, then you need to read this book.
9/10

Sunday Post – 28th January, 2018

Standard

This is part of the weekly meme over at the Caffeinated Reviewer, where book bloggers can share the books and blogs they have written.

I am now getting the hang of fitting in my extra Creative Writing class on Tuesday evening, which is now starting to feel like routine. That said, I can’t remember when so many students were absent with illnesses. I’m hoping the coming week will see everyone recovered and back attending the classes. On Thursday, my sister came shopping with us as Himself had the day off and then later she joined us for a meal in the evening. The wonders of technology had Himself and my son Rob, who is currently in the States, playing Bloodbowl together via their computers after our meal.

Yesterday was a special day I won’t forget in a hurry – I got to see my unborn granddaughter on screen in such amazing detail that I wept. My daughter decided to go for a gender scan and invited us grannies along, with the rest of the family. A magical experience. Today I shan’t be around much, because we are off to celebrate my lovely stepfather’s 70th birthday. We are taking him to one of his favourite restaurants and hopefully the rain and gloom will ease up sufficiently so that the drive is less slog in the mirk and more of an enjoyable drive in the countryside. In the meantime, I hope you all have a lovely day and that the weather is at least bearable, if not kind.

This week I have read:

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew P. Walker
Sleep is one of the most important but least understood aspects of our life, wellness, and longevity. Until very recently, science had no answer to the question of why we sleep, or what good it served, or why we suffer such devastating health consequences when we don’t sleep. Compared to the other basic drives in life—eating, drinking, and reproducing—the purpose of sleep remained elusive. An explosion of scientific discoveries in the last twenty years has shed new light on this fundamental aspect of our lives. Now, preeminent neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker gives us a new understanding of the vital importance of sleep and dreaming. Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, restocks our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. Dreaming mollifies painful memories and creates a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge to inspire creativity.

Walker answers important questions about sleep: how do caffeine and alcohol affect sleep? What really happens during REM sleep? Why do our sleep patterns change across a lifetime? How do common sleep aids affect us and can they do long-term damage? Charting cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and synthesizing decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood, and energy levels; regulate hormones; prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; slow the effects of aging; increase longevity; enhance the education and lifespan of our children, and boost the efficiency, success, and productivity of our businesses.

Yes… I know – this has to be one of the longest blurbs in history, but it also nicely sums up this entertaining and rather frightening non-fiction read. If you regularly don’t get between eight to nine hours of sleep a night and have kidded yourself it really doesn’t much matter than you don’t – then this book is required reading.

 

Keeper by Kim Chance
When a 200-year-old witch attacks her, sixteen-year-old bookworm Lainey Styles is determined to find a logical explanation. Even with the impossible staring her in the face, Lainey refuses to believe it—until she finds a photograph linking the witch to her dead mother.

After the rather disturbing read earlier in the week, this is just what I needed – lots of magical mayhem around a sympathetic protagonist and a completely dastardly villain. Great stuff! Review will be following in due course.

 

My posts last week:

Sunday Post – 21st January, 2018

Teaser Tuesday featuring Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew P. Walker

Can’t-Wait Wednesday featuring Keeper by Kim Chance

Review of Netgalley arc We Care For You by Paul Kitcatt

Friday Face-off – The grass is always greener over the septic tank… featuring The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

My 2017 Reading Year – the Statistics

 

Interesting/outstanding blogs and articles that have caught my attention during the last week, in no particular order:

Space Features of the Week (27 January) http://earthianhivemind.net/2018/01/27/space-features-week-27-january/ Steph brings another wonderful roundup of all that is going on – I love the idea of the Tesla on Mars and do check out that NASA video of the unfurling solar panels…

Chai Break: How positively have authors responded to your negative reviews? https://thisislitblog.com/2018/01/27/chai-break-how-positively-have-authors-responded-to-your-negative-reviews/ The bad behaviour of some authors when confronted by bad reviews is a frequent hot topic on book blogging sites, so I really enjoyed reading this more uplifting take on the subject.

The Difference Between Young Adult and New Adult…And Why It’s Important http://www.momwithareadingproblem.com/2018/01/difference-young-adult-new-adult-important/ This is a particularly gnarly issue if you have young teens keen to read anything they can get their hands on – and I agree with Lillian, it’s important.

Sandy Denny – Who Knows Where The Times Goes? https://theimmortaljukebox.com/2018/01/04/sandy-denny-who-knows-where-the-time-goes/ Once again, the marvellous Thom Hickey takes me to a place I didn’t know I wanted to go – from this haunting song, he transitions to a wonderful passage from the Old English writings of Bede, which then had me hunting for the translation… Magical and moving. I’m now going to be looking for the writings of Bede. Thank you Thom!

31 brand new animal species discovered by amateur naturalists – https://redpenofdoom.com/2018/01/25/31-brand-new-animal-species-discovered-by-amateur-naturalists/ This quirky blogger has an offbeat sense of humour and this item had me laughing out loud – and wishing that some of these names actually existed…

Thank you very much for taking the time and trouble to visit, like and comment on my site and may you have a wonderful week.

Teaser Tuesday – 23rd January, 2018

Standard

Teaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by The Purple Booker.
Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

This is my choice of the day:

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew P. Walker

60% It is said that time heals all wounds. Several years ago I decided to scientifically test this age-old wisdom, as I wondered whether an amendment was in order. Perhaps it was not time that heals all wounds, but rather time spent in dream sleep. I had been developing a theory based on the combined patterns of brain activity and brain neurochemistry of REM sleep, and from this theory came a specific prediction: REM-sleep dreaming offers a form of overnight therapy.

BLURB: An explosion of scientific discoveries in the last twenty years has shed new light on this fundamental aspect of our lives. Now, preeminent neuroscientist and sleep expert Matthew Walker gives us a new understanding of the vital importance of sleep and dreaming. Within the brain, sleep enriches our ability to learn, memorize, and make logical decisions. It recalibrates our emotions, restocks our immune system, fine-tunes our metabolism, and regulates our appetite. Dreaming mollifies painful memories and creates a virtual reality space in which the brain melds past and present knowledge to inspire creativity.

Walker answers important questions about sleep: how do caffeine and alcohol affect sleep? What really happens during REM sleep? Why do our sleep patterns change across a lifetime? How do common sleep aids affect us and can they do long-term damage? Charting cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs, and synthesizing decades of research and clinical practice, Walker explains how we can harness sleep to improve learning, mood, and energy levels; regulate hormones; prevent cancer, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes; slow the effects of aging; increase longevity; enhance the education and lifespan of our children, and boost the efficiency, success, and productivity of our businesses. Clear-eyed, fascinating, and accessible, Why We Sleep is a crucial and illuminating book.

I am conscious that I hardly ever read non-fiction and when I saw this one on offer, given our recent, rather scary experience with my husband’s severe sleep apnea, I decided I wanted to know more about this subject. Now I do, I’m making strenuous efforts to get my own broken sleep rhythm back into some kind of order. This book is not just recommended – for those of you who don’t regularly get 7-8 hours sleep a night, this is required reading.

Review of EBOOK Are We Nearly There Yet? by Ben Hatch

Standard

Ben came to talk to West Sussex Writers last year about tweeting and online marketing, as his guidebook has become an Amazon non-fiction best-seller. He seemed a thoroughly nice chap with an endearingly honest streak. I found his book online and loaded up on my Kindle as a summer read, to use it as a reward when I had written at least half of next term’s course notes…

are we nearly there yetIf you think writing a guidebook is easy, think again… A family’s 8,000 miles round Britain in a Vauxhall Astra. They were bored, broke, burned out and turning 40, so when Ben and Dinah saw the advert looking for a husband and wife team with young kids to write a guidebook about family travel around Britain, they jumped at the chance. With naïve visions of staring moodily across Coniston Water and savouring Cornish pasties, they embark on a mad-cap five-month trip with daughter Phoebe, four, and son Charlie, two, embracing the freedom of the open road with a spirit of discovery and an industrial supply of baby wipes.

I had expected a catalogue of mini-disasters, child-centred chaos and a certain amount of family tension – I’m a granny who spends a fair amount of my ‘free’ time looking after small grandchildren, so am only too aware of what an exhausting, messy job it can be. What I hadn’t expected, was the stark honesty with which Hatch portrays family life. He gave us an intimate history of his relationship with his wife and how they weathered a previous break-up, as well as an unvarnished account of the interplay between them, including the fights.

We also got the expected small children moments, though Hatch manages to keep parental sentimentality well and truly in check. The children came across as bright and articulate – and often more than a tad hyper, probably on account of all those chocolate buttons they were being fed to persuade them to be good…

While I was aware that Ben’s father, Sir David Hatch, had been suddenly diagnosed with cancer just before they set out on their five month adventure, I hadn’t expected the very moving recollections of Ben’s boyhood and his relationship with his father, who died while they were still on the road. It was poignant and rich as Ben’s sharp, honest prose sliced to the heart of how he felt, also wrestling with the prospect of his daughter disappearing off to school once the trip ended. So what this book is all about, is family life. About a couple of bright, intelligent people haunted by the sense that they were not fulfilling the promise of their youth, but instead had somehow become other people. In the middle of looking at museums, grading hotels for child-friendliness and coping with tantrums while always being in public – I got the sense that Ben and Diane discovered a lot more about families than how many chocolate buttons it takes to make a four-year-old sick.

If you are remotely interested in family life, get hold of a copy of this book. It packs far more a punch than the light-hearted cover conveys.
9/10

Review of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Standard

This book, published in 2011, was recommended to me by my son when he came to stay for Christmas. I’ll give you due warning – if you are looking for an easy, lightweight read then leave this one on the pile and come back to it when you are ready to give your grey matter a thorough workout.

Experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman has won a Nobel prize for his work on Prospect theory – but that is only part of the work he has done in a long career examining how the human mind operates. I found the font downright unfriendly as it’s far fainter and close packed than my middle-aged eyes want to tackle, but I soon discovered that this was a deliberate ploy. Kahneman has noticed that we respond to problem solving in largely two ways that he calls System 1 and System 2. Our System 1 is the normal default setting that mostly responds to the multitude of decisions that confronts us in our daily lives – it is quick, often providing an answer in less than a second; instinctive – System 1 will take clues, often inappropriately, from our surroundings and is also influenced by our emotional state. While Kahneman is at pains to emphasise System 1 works very well in a large number of situations, every single one of us make some major mistakes that can have life-changing consequences by relying too much on our System 1 reflexes.

System 2 is the type of thinking we employ when we come up against a problem that we identify as too difficult for our System 1 to process. System 2 is slower, more measured and less prone to be affected emotionally, although we should all be aware that our thinking fast and slwosurroundings have far greater impact on our mindset than we realise. Kahneman discusses a set of experiments where the participants sat in a room and answered questions about how willing they were to help friends and/or people they didn’t know. When dollar signs were displayed across the screensavers on the computers, participants were noticeably less generous – even though they didn’t consciously notice the screensavers. But Kahneman also characterises our System 2 mental processing as being lazy – it is reluctant to engage. One of the things that nudges it to work is when the font is difficult to read…

Much of his most productive experiments were conducted with his collaborator and friend, Amos Tversky, now dead. Kahneman is more than generous with attributing a great deal of the credit for his achievements to his partner – and you get the sense that this book is, in part, a tribute to Tversky.

Kahneman’s prose, is very clear and if he uses any kind of jargon connected with his studies, he is at pains to fully explain exactly what he means. And the unfriendly font and measured writing style delivers some head-swivelling discoveries. For instance, when questioning patients who had just undergone a painful medical procedure, their recollection didn’t hinge on the duration of the procedure at all. Patients judged their experience on the peak pain levels (which they were asked to evaluate on a scale 1-10 every 60 seconds) and how much they were suffering when the procedure came to an end. So one patient who endured the procedure for twenty-five minutes felt more positive than another whose surgery lasted eight minutes, because that patient’s pain level right at the end was still significant. Ah, you’re thinking – that was because the second patient was in greater pain during the shorter operation. No – both patients reported the same pain levels… And this isn’t a one off finding – when recalling similar episodes, the duration is something that most people don’t recall effectively and so don’t factor in when recalling their experiences. Although, I’m hoping that particular experiment won’t be repeated any time soon, as those patients enduring the longer procedure had their operation deliberately extended.

So does the book measure up to the back cover hype? The answer is – yes it does. And if you are thinking of dabbling in the stock market, making any large purchases, or have a crucial decision to make regarding your health, then read this book first. In fact, I think I’m going to have to get my own copy, just in case…
9/10

My Outstanding Reads of 2012

Standard

I read 87 books in 2012 and started 2 more that I didn’t bother to finish. Although it probably is apparent from my blog, perhaps I should explain that I only review books that excite and impress me. My life is far too crowded to expend energy I don’t have on reading and writing about books I don’t like. So the books that make this list are the best of the best – those that have lodged in my shockingly bad memory, providing me with a slice of escapist magic. Or an extra insight into this higgledy-piggledy mess that has ended up being my life.

The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe
devilintheforestThe huge forest rustles with hidden food and threats, the river offers fish and the risk of drowning – and threading through all this is the scalding knowledge that life is precarious and cheap. And Mark has been caught between overwhelming forces.

The writing is pin-sharp and exquisite, with wonderful dialogue, superb scene setting and an interesting cast of characters, who are initially offered up as ciphers – and then, refuse to behave as you’d expect. As the violence escalates and events spin out of control, this tale gripped me and would not let go. And by the end, I had a clearer understanding of what it meant to be a peasant in a small village during the Dark Ages – despite the fact that I have a teaching Degree in History and regard myself as reasonably knowledgeable about that period.

The Last Family in England by Matt Haig
Prince is an earnest young dog, striving hard to live up to the tenets of the Labrador Pact (Remain Loyal to Your Human Masters, lastfamilyinenglandServe and Protect Your Family at Any Cost). Other dogs, led by the Springer Spaniels, have revolted. Their slogans are ‘Dogs for Dogs, not for Humans’ and ‘Pleasure not Duty’. Mentored by an elderly Labrador called Henry, Prince takes his responsibilities seriously, and as things in the Hunter family begin to go badly awry – marital breakdown, rowdy teenage parties, attempted suicide – his responsibilities threaten to overwhelm him. And down in the park it’s even worse. Henry has disappeared: Falstaff the Springer Spaniel wants to lead Prince astray… What will he do next?

I got sucked in by the comedic cover and Jeanette Winterson’s description that the book is fabulous and moving and funny and strange. And – yes – she’s absolutely right, it’s all of those things. It’s also poignantly sad. The simple writing style is deceptive – Haig is dealing with some hefty issues in this slight book. Because, of course, this book is actually nothing at all to do with dogs – it is about choosing how to live your life. Are you going to bounce through like a Springer Spaniel, carefully avoiding any commitment? Or shoulder responsibilities even if they buckle you in the process? It behoves everyone to sometimes take the time to reconsider their choices – and this small book should be required reading for everyone.

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
zoocityZinzi December is an ex-journalist trying to rebuild her life after having been involved in the death of her brother. But in this alternate world, those who feel particularly guilty find themselves paired with an animal who may or may not contain the soul of the person they wronged. Beukes doesn’t spend a great deal of time on exposition, but the first person narrative is at times interspersed with other documents – and the academic treatise on the prejudice against ‘zoos’ is examined, along with its causes. Zinzi is bonded with Sloth, who she has to have reasonably close, or die a painful, terrifying death – but in addition, zoos have a gift. Zinzi’s is an ability to find lost things that she visualises floating above people.

And the Zoo City? A slum area in Johannesburg, inhabited by criminals – mostly accompanied by their animals. This is a vivid and richly different world, where the African slang words and rhythms rang with authenticity, along with the slick, wonderfully worded metaphorical language.  But don’t take my word for it – if you are remotely interested in speculative fiction and haven’t already got hold of this book, then do so. It is one of those books that will still be discussed ten years from now as a benchmark read of 2010/11.

The Hare With the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal
This winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award was fervently recommended by my sister-in-law, so I decided to give it a try – harewiththeambereyesalthough to be honest, the blurb didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

264 Japanese wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the netsuke, they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined. From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siècle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century. For de Waal, a noted potter in his own right, just happens to belong to one of the major Jewish banking families who operated out of Vienna, Paris and London at the height of their powers.

Using a collection of objects as the nucleus of the narrative was inspired and probably made it possible to consider recounting the trauma caused by the Nazi’s aggression and the vicious anti-Sematic comments and open prejudice that winds a dark thread through this account. This book is a testament to the sheer resilience and toughness of a family who have managed to not only endure being ripped apart, stripped of all their property and evicted from their country of birth – but thrive. Along with their collection of Japanese figures.

Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan
lightbornLightborn is a revolutionary new technology that has transformed the modern world. Better known as ‘shine’, it is the ultimate in education, self-improvement and entertainment – beamed directly into the mind of anyone who can meet the asking price. But what do you do if the shine in question has a mind of its own…?

We follow the fortunes of two youngsters, Roksana and Xavia as they struggle to cope when life in the Arizona town of La Sombre falls apart as the adults all go mad. This being Sullivan, don’t expect classic dystopian, ‘Oh my God, the world is falling apart, isn’t this awful?’ What marks her out as such a joy to read, is that she is an author who assumes her readers are intelligent enough to keep up without having everything spelt out. So as we watch both Roksana and Xavia’s characters mature throughout the catastrophe and follow their personal griefs and coping strategies, their personal stories steadily unfold. Her writing, as ever, is wonderful. Dialogue is pitch perfect and the passages describing the sentient lightborn as it interacts with the human brain is brutal and beautiful. As you may have gathered, I highly rate this book. But don’t take my word for it – go find a copy and read it yourself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
This is an autobiography about Jeanette Winterson’s unusual and destructive childhood that was partly covered in her fictional whybehappyversion, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. She was adopted by the Winterson’s, who were Pentecostalists. That could still have worked out just fine – except that Mrs Winterson was very disappointed with Jeanette almost from the start when she proved to be baby that cried a lot…. And from there it slid away into disaster. Mostly because you wouldn’t want to let Mrs Winterson near any breathing being – and the thought of having the small child depicted on the cover of the book at her mercy makes me feel queasy.

What this book isn’t, though, is one of the misery memoirs that hit the shelves a few years back. Jeanette Winterson would rather rip her tongue out by the roots than have her readers pity her. She was far too busy questing for books and finding ways to survive Mrs Winterson’s depressive and self-destructive attitude to Life. Indeed, she appeared to not only survive, but outright thrive once she fought free of Accrington. This book deserves to be read at least once by anyone who’s had a bumpy childhood. You’ll come away feeling empowered and admiring.

Age of Aztec – Book 4 in the Pantheon series by James Lovegrove
ageofaztecThe date is 4 Jaguar 1 Monday 1 House; November 25th 2012 by the old reckoning. The Aztec Empire rules the world, in the name of Quetzalcoatl – the Feathered Serpent – and her brother gods. The Aztec reign is one of cruel and ruthless oppression, fuelled by regular human sacrifice. In the jungle-infested city of London, one man defies them: the masked vigilante known as the Conquistador.

We follow the exploits of the Conquistador as he rebels against the might of the Aztec Empire for his own reasons – a personal tragedy that sums up, for him, all that is wrong with the current regime. Britain had been one of the last countries on the planet to fall under Aztec domination and as a patriot, the Conquistador – or Stuart Reston, to use his everyday identity – yearns for the country’s lost freedom. But as the chase between Stuart and Mal intensifies, the unique twists that Lovegrove has made his own in this series transform this book into something far cleverer and more memorable. This page-turner has its own share of dark humour as well as well-rounded protagonists that we care about. Lovegrove’s smart intellect shines through his prose and shows in the pin-sharp perfection of his pacing and plot structure.

The startling backdrop – London simmers in equatorial heat as monkeys and creepers infest the streets with ziggurats littering the landscape – is well described without holding up the action. Which is just as well, because this book starts with a bang and doesn’t let up till the final, shocking climax.

The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
This classic Fantasy tale – knocking around long before Harry Potter was a twinkle in Rowling’s eye – was always a firm favourite with littlebroomstickall my classes when I taught. I dug out my copy and read it to my granddaughter. Despite the unfashionably long descriptive passages, the narrative was sufficiently engrossing that it held her rapt right through to the end.

Quite right, too. I’d forgotten what a little gem it is, with beautifully flowing and evocative prose the whips the story along at a fair clip. Mary Smith is ten years old and due to an unfortunate illness and bad timing, finds herself parked with Great-Aunt Charlotte in her large house, Red Manor, in the heart of Shropshire right at the end of the summer holidays. There is nothing much to do. Until she encounters a beautiful black cat called Tib with glowing green eyes, who leads her to a rare flower in the middle of the woods…. And from that beginning, the adventure whisks up its young readers and doesn’t let up until the final page. Plain Mary Smith is an enjoyable, appealing protagonist who is just the right mix of innocence and quick wittedness. But there are also a strong cast of supporting characters – particularly the wonderfully creepy Madam Mumblechook and her sidekick, Doctor Dee.

Endor College, educational establishment of witches and black magic, is vividly described and until I read this again to Frankie, I’d forgotten just how disturbing it is. Under the cosy touches – ‘Badness me’ as an exclamation, for instance – there is real menace. Stewart’s wonderful description of Tib does more than mark her out as a cat lover – it also highlights the contrast between the lithe, independent creature who befriends Mary and the twisted toadlike thing he becomes thanks to Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. And the reason why they expend all this magical energy and effort to transform Tib and a host of other creatures? Because they can.  Stewart gives youngsters a powerful insight into the nature of evil – all too often it isn’t about world domination with overblown, pantomime-type characters that slide into the ridiculous. It is about people in everyday situations who abuse the power they have to twist and torment those powerless to prevent them.

The Broken Kingdoms – Book 2 of The Inheritance trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
thebrokenkingdomsLike all really good writers – and Jemisin is certainly that – she assumes that her readers are bright enough to join up the dots without spelling out every last nuance and allusion. So it becomes interesting to see characters we’ve already got to know well from an entirely different viewpoint.

However, what has this book humming is the vibrant story of Oree and her injured refugee. I’d intended to read a couple of chapters – but Jemisin’s magical prose drew me in and before I knew it, I was nearly at the end of the book. In addition to a cracking plot with various twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, there is Oree’s spiky character. She is an endearing protagonist – a great mix of gritted stubbornness and vulnerability. The supporting cast are a wonderful mix of godlings, gods and driven individuals, whose power and capacity to hold a grudge produce a deadly cocktail of vengeful anger. We are given a ringside seat at an immortal family tragedy from a mortal’s viewpoint, with Oree stuck right in middle of the immortal scrap – a very neat trick to pull off. As an additional treat, following the genre convention, Jemisin isn’t afraid to give us flights of descriptive prose that verses on the poetic.
I was completely drawn into the action – and found the ending moving and appropriate. Not only does The Broken Kingdom manage to live up to the promise shown in A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, it surpassed my expectations. If this excellent series has somehow slipped past your radar, I highly recommend it.

Stray Souls – Book 1 of the Magicals Anonymous series by Kate Griffin
This is set in the same world – and the same backdrop – as Griffin’s highly successful Midnight Mayor series, featuring Matthew Swift straysoulsas her conflicted and very powerful protagonist. I expected an action-packed plot wound full of tension and vivid descriptions of some of the less wholesome parts of London, which I certainly got – but what was a delightful surprise were the laugh-aloud moments. And this book is full of them. Griffin’s humour is pitch-perfect and a wonderful counterpoint to the full-on action and pathos. A book that leaves me with a lump in my throat while making me laugh always has a special place in my heart – it doesn’t happen all that often. And if Griffin’s descriptions leap off the page, then her dialogue is a joy – pin-sharp, funny and perceptive.

As for the ending, it was beautifully handled – both satisfying and poignant. All in all, while Griffin’s books have always been excellent, Stray Souls is outstanding and the best urban fantasy book I’ve read this year.

Review of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Standard

This non-fiction book has become an international bestseller, charting a remarkable story that consumed the author for a decade.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first ‘immortal’ human tissue grown in culture, HeLa cells were vital for developing polio vaccine, helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization and gene mapping, and have been bought and sold by the billions. Yet Henrietta herself remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.

Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the ‘coloured’ ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to East henrettalacksBaltimore today, where Henrietta’s children and grandchildren live, and struggle with the legacy of her cells. Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family – especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. She was consumed with questions: had scientists cloned her mother? Did it hurt her when researchers infected her cells with viruses and shot them into Space? What happened to her sister, Elsie, who died in a mental institution at the age of fifteen? And if her mother was so important to medicine, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?

Reading a variety of scientific articles and books over the years, I’d already heard about these remarkable HeLa cells and was prompted to track this book down when I read about it in the New Scientist. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks follows an amazing story, helped by Skloot’s vivid writing which grabbed me by the throat and sucked me into this incredible tale. I was appalled at the grinding poverty endured by the Lacks family and horrified at Henrietta’s treatment which seemed every bit as barbarically brutal as anything you’ll find in Tudor apothecary notebooks. It didn’t help that Henrietta was coloured at a time when the south was divided along institutionalised racial lines. However, I don’t think poor Henrietta stood a chance against the rapacious cancer that ripped through her – the sheer toughness of those cells that are still going strong today, decades after her death, is a testament to the aggressiveness of this particular cancer.

Henrietta was only thirty-one when she died, leaving behind a young family. A good portion of the story deals with the painful grief of children who were never given sufficient information to come to terms with their mother’s involuntary role in a whole number of scientific breakthroughs. While the rest of the world marvelled at the sci-fi headlines describing the HeLa cells and their contribution to humankind’s knowledge, Henrietta’s daughter was riven with horror at that thought that some debased Alien-type version of her mother was locked up in a laboratory somewhere, enduring endless torment.

In America, the law currently says that once patients have had growths/moles/tumours removed, these tissues are no longer belong to them. Furthermore, if researchers and biotechnological companies find a useful gene or cell, they are entitled to sell off these portions for a profit – and American citizens can’t do anything about it, according to the latest Supreme Court ruling. However, this book isn’t in the business of portraying scientists as unfeeling villains – George Gey who removed the tissue sample from Henrietta and was responsible for growing it on, worked tirelessly on the project and freely allowed other scientists around the world access to the HeLa cells, making it possible for the large number of advances and scientific investigations to occur.

What this book starkly highlights is that the myth that science can somehow operate outside the messy business of living, is just that – a myth. The fact that a bunch of cells harvested from a young woman dying of cancer were responsible for a number of number of medical breakthroughs, doesn’t alter the fact that her children suffered by being completely ignored by that process. And if Rebecca Skloot hadn’t arranged for a portion of the royalties from her book to go towards a foundation to help Henrietta’s descendants, the hard fact is that they probably would be still unable to afford medical insurance.
10/10

Review of The Invisible Gorilla and Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

Standard

The authors, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, won the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for Gorillas in Our Midst, a groundbreaking and world-famous experiment where they asked volunteers to watch a 60 second film of students playing basketball and told them to count the number of passes made. About halfway through, a woman dressed in a gorilla outfit strolled to the centre of the screen, beat her chest at the camera and then walked away. Half the volunteers missed seeing the gorilla…

invisiblegorillaYep. It made my jaw drop, too. Unless you’ve already heard of the experiment, of course. Many people have, by all accounts. But before you shrug your shoulders and dismiss it as yet another oddball piece of human behaviour that doesn’t really apply to everyday life, just stop and think of the ramifications for a long moment. And if your imagination still fails you, then pick up this book and read on. You need to know what it has to say. Really.

A policeman called Kenny Conley, while chasing an armed criminal, failed to notice a brutal beating by fellow officers nearby. In a crackdown aimed at making an example of the officers involved, Conley was accused of perjury and obstruction of justice. During the trial, the jurors couldn’t believe he ran past the beating without noticing it. He was sentenced to thirty-four months in jail and fired from the Boston police force, after the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal. However, when Chabris and Simons published their findings, they were contacted by a reporter who had begun to believe that Conley was telling the truth. Based on their evidence, there was a retrial, at which point it was shown that as Conley was entirely focused on the armed criminal he was chasing, it was highly likely that he didn’t notice anything else. Finally in 2006, Conley was reinstated by the Boston Police Force and awarded over $600,000 in back pay and the following year, he was promoted to detective. This is just one of the amazing stories that the book charts as it challenges a raft of our assumptions about ourselves and what we can do. We generally over-estimate our ability to multi-task; instinctively believe people who project confidence, whether or not they are competent; rely on our snap decisions for more heavily than we should; and think we are more capable than we are—with some scary consequences.

Despite the fact that it is written by two psychology professors, the writing style is clear and accessible, while the subject matter is absolutely riveting. If you write any kind of fiction, I highly recommend this book to you. It will give you all sorts of counter-intuitive evidence you can use to tweak those off-the-wall scenarios you have swirling around in your head.

On a more mundane yet vital level, if you are in the habit of conducting long conservations using a hands-free phone during car journeys, then you should urgently read Chabris and Simons’ findings on what that does to your ability to drive your car safely. Basically, they discovered that while folks are chatting on the phone, their driving is significantly impaired. However, if you are talking to a passenger, the same impairment doesn’t occur…

If you don’t pick up any other non-fiction book this year, I urge you to read this one. Your life may depend upon it.
10/10