Reviews

‘Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams’ by Matthew Walker #bookreview #TuesdayBookBlog

sleep

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Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our life, health and longevity and yet it is increasingly neglected in twenty-first-century society, with devastating consequences: every major disease in the developed world – Alzheimer’s, cancer, obesity, diabetes – has very strong causal links to deficient sleep.

In this book, the first of its kind written by a scientific expert, Professor Matthew Walker explores twenty years of cutting-edge research to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. Looking at creatures from across the animal kingdom as well as major human studies, Why We Sleep delves into everything from what really happens during REM sleep to how caffeine and alcohol affect sleep and why our sleep patterns change across a lifetime, transforming our appreciation of the extraordinary phenomenon that safeguards our existence.

I have suffered from poor sleep on and off for most of my adult life. I’ve tried all the usual things – less caffeine, less alcohol, more alcohol, warm baths, no screen time after 8 p.m. – the list goes on and on and none of those things have worked. So I was keen to read this book and see if it could offer any help.

It does so much more than that. This book goes into real depth about how and why we sleep. It’s scientific, research-based and full of sometimes quite startling information. But it does all this in a very readable and reader-friendly way. It isn’t confusing or dense, and it certainly isn’t boring. It’s informative and fascinating and very, very well-written.

It’s eye-opening and concerning to discover just how much of an impact on health – both mental and physical – poor sleep has. And it’s a real concern in a culture that is based on work, work, work with little time for relaxation. It’s a reminder that sleeping and resting and caring for yourself isn’t a luxury or an indulgence but is something that is vital and necessary. A real wake-up call.

I still don’t sleep all that well, but I have more good nights than bad. And I understand now how important that is.

I can’t recommend this book enough.

5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

 

 

 

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‘Everything Is Lies’ by Helen Callaghan #bookreview #FridayReads #psychological #thriller

Everything

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What if your parents had been lying to you since the day you were born? 

Sophia’s parents lived quiet, ordinary lives. At least she thought so, until she came home to discover her mother hanged, and her father in a pool of blood.

Sophia is certain her mother didn’t try to kill her father – but clearing her name will draw Sophia deep into a past she never imagined.

A past that hides a dark and twisted secret . . .

Because if everything you’ve been told is lies, then how dangerous is the truth? 

Sophia has escaped the boredom of her childhood home and is living in London, working as an architect. Her mother, who she recognises has issues, bothers her constantly, and as the novel opens, she calls Sophia when she is out with her new colleagues, asking her to come home. Irritated, Sophia refuses, a reaction she’ll come to regret, because her mother has been hiding a huge secret for years, and nothing about her quiet, reclusive parents is what Sophia thought it was.

There’s loads of mystery here, and intrigue, and lots of twists and turns, all centred on a book Sophia’s mother was writing about her past. Sophia reads the first two parts of the manuscript and discovers her mother was part of a cult headed by a rock star. But the third part is missing and it seems that someone will go to any lengths to stop Sophia finding out exactly what it contains.

The clever part of this novel is that you often think you know exactly what has happened, and then something shifts, something new is discovered, and you realise you’re wrong, again. The plot is flawless, the writing tight, suspenseful and really well-paced. I really enjoyed reading this – it was pure escapism. The only thing stopping me giving it five stars is that I just didn’t connect fully with Sophia. I didn’t feel her horror and grief at her mother’s death or her fear or shock when she begins to discover her mother’s past. But that doesn’t stop me recommending this book – if you like twisty, turny, well-written thrillers, then it’s definitely for you.

4 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘Home’ by Amanda Berriman #TuesdayBookBlog #BookReview

home

Amazon.co.uk

Meet Jesika, aged four and a half. The most extraordinary narrator of 2018.

She lives in a flat with her mother and baby brother and she knows a lot. She knows their flat is high up and the stairs are smelly. She knows she shouldn’t draw on the peeling wallpaper or touch the broken window. And she knows she loves her mummy and baby brother Toby.

She does not know that their landlord is threatening to evict them and that Toby’s cough is going to get much worse. Or that Paige, her new best friend, has a secret that will explode their world.

This should be a thoroughly depressing read, but it is saved from being so by Jesika, the four-year-old narrator.

It isn’t easy to successfully write from a child’s point of view once you’re an adult, but Jesika feels really  authentic. Her misconceptions and misunderstandings really make you realise how confusing the things adults say can be, and you long for the grown-ups in her life to listen to her properly, to slow down and to realise that she’s confused and worried and scared.

Jesika’s love for her mum and brother is beautifully portrayed, and her visceral fear of being left is one of the strengths of the story. And while, as adults, readers understand what is going on completely, Jesika’s confusion adds to the tension and drama – there’s an almost physical reaction, wanting to protect Jesika and poor little Paige.

This is a timely portrayal too of the frustrations and stupidities involved in accessing services, particularly for the most vulnerable. Someone should be helping Jesika and her mum – they shouldn’t be in a mouldy, dangerous flat, at the mercy of an unscrupulous private landlord. It’s a damning portrayal of the times we live in.

Hard to read at times, but definitely one to read, I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this, but Jesika will stay with me for a long time.

5 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi #ThrowbackThursday #bookreview

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

breath

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At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. One day he was a doctor treating the dying, the next he was a patient struggling to live.

When Breath Becomes Air chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a medical student asking what makes a virtuous and meaningful life into a neurosurgeon working in the core of human identity – the brain – and finally into a patient and a new father.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? What do you do when when life is catastrophically interrupted? What does it mean to have a child as your own life fades away?

Paul Kalanithi died while working on this profoundly moving book, yet his words live on as a guide to us all. When Breath Becomes Air is a life-affirming reflection on facing our mortality and on the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

I’ve read some of the other reviews of this book and really wonder if they read the same book as me. If you’re looking for a misery memoir, a warts and all revelation of how harrowing it is to go through cancer and all that entails, then this isn’t for you. Those books have their place – my mother died from cancer and it was helpful sometimes to read other people’s accounts and to know that they were feeling as I did. But I wish I’d had this book back then.

Because this is more than a memoir or an account of illness and death. The author doesn’t list in too great detail what happens to him because it’s not supposed to be about that (which is what I think a few of the other reviewers have missed). This is about a man who, before he knew he was ill, strove in his studies and in his work to get at the meaning of life, at what it means to be human, and what it means to die. And then, somewhat ironically, just at the brink of achieving one of his goals in life, he was diagnosed with lung cancer – cancer that killed him at the age of thirty-seven.

A brilliant, eloquent and sensitive man, Paul Kalanithi continued to strive throughout his illness, to find meaning in what life meant, what made it worthwhile, and to understand when it was enough, when it was time to stop. This is what he had always wanted to do for his patients and this was how he lived his last days.

A really unusual and beautiful book. I was sobbing at the end – and any book that can cause such a powerful reaction is something very special indeed.

5 stars

‘The Men’ by Fanny Calder #RBRT #TuesdayBookReview

#RBRT Review Team

I read and reviewed ‘The Men’ for Rosie’s Book Review Team.

Cover Image - The Men

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A darkly brilliant debut novel by Fanny Calder, and arguably essential reading for the feminist hedonist woman in your life.

City life in the 1990s. Anonymous, intense, paradoxical and sometimes lonely. A young, haunted woman falls in love with a singer. She finds she has been consumed by the relationship and when it ends – as it inevitably does – she feels unable to quite rediscover herself.

Cities can draw you into even darker places, and she embarks on a series of intense relationships with thirteen men of very different types, from a rough sleeper to a millionaire, and from a transvestite to a leading politician. As she is propelled through a series of extraordinary adventures and wild parties she finds she begins to lose her own identity. Is there a way out?

A raw and unflinchingly honest narrative with stripped down language that is liberating and sometimes challenging. It is a tale of urban human connections crafted with no judgement or deep introspection – a window on the author’s own life at that time that will resonate and stay with you.

How refreshing to read something different, something honest and authentic. This is a book that is what it says it is – raw and unflinchingly honest. It follows the experiences of an unnamed woman as she moves from encounter to encounter and from relationship to relationship, making mistakes, getting into difficult situations, looking for something she can’t quite reach.

The relationships she has make for a compelling read, and one that is difficult at times. I found the first few episodes a little irritating to be honest and I wasn’t sure I was going to like the narrator or the book, but then, as things progressed, I warmed to her and became really engrossed in the narrative. She grows on you and you find yourself feeling angry with her, sorry for her, frustrated with her and happy for her when she does find joy and contentment.

I found her friendship with the transvestite and his boy really touching and a joy to read. She found with them, it seemed, a relationship that was real and good and good for her.

The author is a very talented writer, the writing here is beautifully done – well-crafted, measured, beautiful in places without being overblown. The writer knows how to build a scene, build characters without overdoing descriptions, unnecessary adjectives and tired, clichéd similes and metaphors – this is a writer with natural flair.

An unusual, intelligent and unsettling book. Very much recommended.

5 stars

 

‘The Confession’ by Jo Spain #tuesdaybookblog #bookreview #crime

confession

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Late one night a man walks into the luxurious home of disgraced banker Harry McNamara and his wife Julie. The man launches an unspeakably brutal attack on Harry as a horror-struck Julie watches, frozen by fear. It looks like Harry’s many sins – corruption, greed, betrayal – have finally caught up with him.

An hour later the intruder, JP Carney, hands himself in, confessing to the assault. The police have a victim, a suspect in custody and an eye-witness account, but Julie remains troubled.

Has Carney’s surrender really been driven by a guilty conscience or is this confession the first calculated move in a deadly game?

The opening of this book is a lesson in how to hook your reader – and is also not for the faint-hearted. It’s shocking, but not gratuitous, and brings you straight into the drama.

Told form varying points of view, we follow Julie as she meets and marries Harry, realises he’s not all he’s cracked up to be, but finds herself unable to give him up. We also follow JP, his troubling past, and discover what has led him to this crime.

There is also Alice, the detective assigned the case, who  knows there’s more to it than others want to believe, but who is frustrated at every turn, by both JP and by Julie.

This is a very well-written book, and one that is much more than a crime novel. There is much here about the complexities of love, loyalty and jealousy, there is also a good dose of social comment (without being preachy) and enough drama to keep you turning the pages.

I did feel, however, that there could have been more detail about Harry and Julie’s early relationship. It’s all a bit vague – how did he become so successful exactly? And I wanted more about Alice too. She’s a great character, funny, clever and interesting and I felt that she deserved much more room in this novel.

I was also a little disappointed by the ending. It didn’t feel that realistic to me.

That said, this is a really enjoyable read.

4 stars

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘Stiff’ by Mary Roach #BookReview #ThrowbackThursday

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

stiff

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What happens to your body after you have died? Fertilizer? Crash Test Dummy? Human Dumpling? Ballistics Practise?

Life after death is not as simple as it looks. Mary Roach’s Stiff lifts the lid off what happens to our bodies once we have died. Bold, original and with a delightful eye for detail, Roach tells us everything we wanted to know about this new frontier in medical science.

Interweaving present-day explorations with a history of past attempts to study what it means to be human Stiff is a deliciously dark investigations for readers of popular science as well as fans of the macabre

I have a bit of a fascination with death but I’m not a morbid person. I just feel that it’s a normal part of life (after all, it happens to everyone) that we tend to ignore, or hide away, or pretend doesn’t happen. We don’t want to know the details, the realities. And I think that this reluctance to recognise death and its processes, the rituals around it, have made us less connected to it, and, in turn, more fearful.  We’ve made death something secret, unknown. This book lifts the lid on death, detailing practically everything that could happen to you once you’re dead, including unusual after-life occupations such as being a crash test dummy, becoming part of an exhibition, helping surgeons learn their art, helping scientists understand decomposition or, if you go the more traditional route, what happens in a cremation or what happens once you’ve been buried.

It sounds morbid, but it isn’t. Roach’s writing is funny, respectful, warm and informative. I don’t believe in a god, or a heaven or an afterlife – I’m very happy with this one, thank you very much. There’s nothing once you’re gone and it seems a terrible shame to me that bodies that could do so much good and help so much are literally allowed to go to waste. I’ve always made my feelings known to my family – researchers can have as much of me as they want. I don’t want a funeral or a grave that my children feel indebted to visit when I’m not even there and all they’re doing is making a crematorium owner very rich. How much better will it be if my no longer needed remains help find a cure for a disease, or help investigators to improve safety in transport. And what’s left I’d be happy to have made into compost (you can have this done you know!). Roach’s book details all of these options and more, with warmth and honesty.

For a book about death, it was weirdly uplifting, and life-affirming. All we have is the here and now, and death is a part of life. We are so uniformed; we make death into something horrific and other. But as Roach so clearly and entertainingly shows, it’s part of being human and it’s something we should know more about.

4.5 out of 5

‘Furiously Happy’ by Jenny Lawson #throwbackthursday #bookreview #bloggesstribe

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines.

This is one of the books I mentioned on my post about mental health yesterday – and I recommend it to everyone!

81bAquOCgWL

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In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson regaled readers with uproarious stories of her bizarre childhood. In her new book, Furiously Happy, she explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

As Jenny says: ‘You can’t experience pain without also experiencing the baffling and ridiculous moments of being fiercely, unapologetically, intensely and (above all) furiously happy.’ It’s a philosophy that has – quite literally – saved her life.

Jenny’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, was ostensibly about family, but deep down it was about celebrating your own weirdness. Furiously Happy is a book about mental illness, but under the surface it’s about embracing joy in fantastic and outrageous ways. And who doesn’t need a bit more of that?

I’m a huge fan of Jenny Lawson’s blog ‘The Bloggess’ which has had me laughing and crying on many occasions. I also adored her first book ‘Let’s Pretend This Never Happened’, so I was so excited to read her second book.

Jenny is breathtakingly and beautifully honest about her mental health issues. She has crippling depression and anxiety, and, on top of this, also has to contend with problems with her physical health.  I’ve read a lot of books about these issues, but never have I read an author as inspiring, as honest and open and as terribly, horribly funny as Jenny Lawson.

This book focuses more on mental illness than the first book, but is no less hilarious for that. Jenny writes about her struggles with disarming honesty, the effects it has had on her life, her career and her family. She clearly adores her family,  but they don’t escape her unusual sense of humour. The arguments she has with husband Victor are a highlight of the book, as Jenny often goes off on a tangent that Victor finds increasingly difficult and frustrating to follow. But her love for him and his for her is touchingly shown when she tells him his life would be easier without her.

“It might be easier,” he replies. “But it wouldn’t be better.”

A brief run through of some of the chapter titles tells you most of what you need to know about this book:

‘George Washington’s Dildo’

‘LOOK AT THIS GIRAFFE’

‘Death by Swans Is Not as Glamorous as You’d Expect’

and

‘Cat Lamination’

are a few of my particular favourites.

While the book is very, very funny, it’s also very, very emotional to read, at least it was for me. Jenny’s mental health issues mean that she often can’t function, that she hides in hotel rooms when she’s supposed to be promoting her work, that she often feels like a failure because she can’t cope with the things other mothers seem to excel at, like PTA meetings. But she’s determined that when she feels fine, that when she can face life, that she will really live, that she will be ‘furiously happy’. She understands that there’s a flip side to the extreme emotions that depression brings – that she has the ability to also experience extreme joy, and she’s determined that she will have a storeroom of memories for those dark times, filled with moments

‘of tightrope walking, snorkelling in long-forgotten caves, and running barefoot through cemeteries with a red ball gown trailing behind me.’

As she says, it’s not just about saving her life, it’s about making her life.

Despite great breakthroughs in recent years, mental illness still carries a stigma. But sufferers are no more to blame for their illness than people with cancer, or MS or anything. Jenny’s writing humanises mental illness. She isn’t ashamed, and neither should anyone else be. The epilogue, ‘Deep in the Trenches’ made me cry. It’s the most touching, insightful, compassionate and beautiful piece of writing I’ve ever read about living with mental illness, or helping someone you love to live and to live fully.

And I’ll always be grateful for the very clever, but characteristically quirky, ‘spoons’ analogy. I read this part of the book at exactly the right time, and it really helped with a situation where someone I love really didn’t have enough spoons. Read it – you’ll get it, and it might help you too.

I love this book, and if I could give it more stars I would. Yes, it’s incredibly funny, but it also says something extremely important. If you have mental health issues, or care for someone who does, please, please read this.

5 stars

‘The Twelve-Mile Straight’ by Eleanor Henderson #tuesdaybookblog #bookreview

12 mile

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Cotton County, Georgia, 1930: In a house full of secrets, two babies–one light-skinned, the other dark–are born to Elma Jesup, a white sharecropper’s daughter. Accused of raping Elma, field hand Genus Jackson is lynched and dragged behind a truck down the Twelve-Mile Straight, the road to the nearest town. In the aftermath, the farm’s inhabitants are forced to contend with their complicity in a series of events that left a man dead and a family irrevocably fractured.

Despite the prying eyes and curious whispers of the townspeople, Elma begins to raise her babies as best she can, under the roof of her mercurial father, Juke, and with the help of Nan, the young black housekeeper who is as close to Elma as a sister. But soon it becomes clear that the ties that bind all of them together are more intricate than any could have ever imagined. As startling revelations mount, a web of lies begins to collapse around the family, destabilizing their precarious world and forcing all to reckon with the painful truth.

New York Times bestselling author Eleanor Henderson has returned with an audacious American epic that combines the intimacy of a family drama with the staggering presence of a great Southern saga. Set in the years of the Depression and Prohibition, and tackling themes of racialized violence, social division, and financial crisis, The Twelve-Mile Straight is a startlingly timely, emotionally resonant, and magnificent tour de force.

In a world that seems to be moving backwards, with the rise of the far right in the US and here in the UK, this is a pertinent novel. We kid ourselves that we’ve moved so far, that we have achieved equality, but the prejudice and discrimination written here is unfortunately only too real almost a hundred years later.

Sharecropper’s daughter Elma gives birth to twins – one light-skinned, one dark. Not surprisingly, this garners a great deal of interest, and gossip, and the result is that field hand Genus, deemed to have raped Elma, is lynched.

But there’s more to the twins’ conception and birth than meets the eye. And Elma, her father Juke, and housekeeper Nan find themselves entangled in a web of lies and deceit.

The writing is so evocative – 1930’s Georgia is brought to life with a confident yet careful touch. The little details of everyday life really help set the scene and the poverty, the frustration and the dreadful unfairness are portrayed not always through dramatic events and tragedies, but through the every day constraints, degradation and brutality that one group of people inflict on another.

The narrative shifts viewpoints and we get to know the story from all the main characters which adds a depth to the novel and makes the reader feel involved and invested. Each characters feels real, and authentic, and their actions and reactions, their decisions, their mistakes and their desperation, carry the narrative along.

There are shadows of Harper Lee here, and Carson McCullers and Williams Faulkner – with writing that is sparse at times and as dry and barren as the Georgia fields in drought, at other times vibrant, full of colour and life.

This isn’t a pleasant, happy read. But it is an important one. Like Britain’s history of colonialism, the US has never seemed to really address its past, admit its guilt and make amends. That it isn’t too hard to imagine the events of this book happening still is a sad indictment of how little we’ve progressed. A must read.

5 stars

 

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the review copy.

‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter #bookreview #ThrowbackThursday

Renee at It’s Book Talk began this meme to share old favourites and recommendations, and I discovered it through Between the Lines. ‘Nights at the Circus’ by Angela Carter is an amazing book, one that stays with you, and one of those very rare books that I’ve actually read more than once. I read it as part of the David Bowie reading challenge that I discovered on the  Scatterbooker blog.

nights-at-the-circus2

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Is Sophie Fevvers, toast of Europe’s capitals, part swan…or all fake?

Courted by the Prince of Wales and painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, she is an aerialiste extraordinaire and star of Colonel Kearney’s circus. She is also part woman, part swan. Jack Walser, an American journalist, is on a quest to discover the truth behind her identity. Dazzled by his love for her, and desperate for the scoop of a lifetime, Walser has no choice but to join the circus on its magical tour through turn-of-the-nineteenth-century London, St Petersburg and Siberia.

My goodness – what a fabulous lead character Carter has given us in Fevvers. Half woman, half swan, Sophie is the star of Colonel Kearney’s circus, travelling across the globe, followed by the enamoured journalist Walser, who becomes a clown in order to join her on her travels.

It’s hard to summarise this story – so I won’t even try. This book doesn’t follow a traditional structure but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to read. On the contrary, it’s enormously entertaining.

The settings are described vividly, magically, beautifully. The cast of characters are fantastically drawn – I have a particular soft-spot for Lizzie, Fevvers’ ‘mother’, closet activist, her magic handbag able to conjure any remedy for any occasion and as intriguing and delightful as Fevvers herself. Mignon, Samson, the Princess of Abyssinia, Buffo the Great and the wonderful Sybil the pig are all brought to life effortlessly. Their stories are a joy to read and their narratives intertwine with Sophie’s own story flawlessly.

The writing is assured, clever without being pretentious, lyrical in places. It’s a book I’ll remember for a long time – unforgettable, colourful, and chaotic. A masterpiece.

5 stars