Category Archives: non-fiction books

My Top Politics and Feminism Reads for 2017

Having looked at all the non-fiction I’ve read this year, I’ve decided to split them up into science, politics and feminism, and biography and memoir, otherwise I would have a really long blog post summing it all up! I can’t quite believe I’ve managed to read 22 non-fiction books this year! and there’s still a few weeks left… what if I read another incredible book before January?

These are my favourite non-fiction politics and feminism reads for the year, out of the ones I have read this year, not that they were necessarily published this year. I can’t believe I thought I didn’t like books about politics before this year… how very wrong I was! Click on the images to go to my longer reviews.

Politics

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Hope In The Dark – Rebecca Solnit

I came to this after hearing it mentioned on the Bookshambles podcast many, many times by Josie Long (this is also why I now have the first Elena Ferrante book on my shelves waiting to be read!). I loved reading this this book with every fibre of my being.

It’s under 150 pages and is a collection of essays on the role of hope in politics, environmental issues, and social problems. The dark is the unknowable future. It’s about how small acts of activism can have huge consequences. It’s about how hope is what’s needed to be an activist. There are examples of all of these things in Hope in the Dark.

Hope in the Dark was written in the aftermath of the re-election of Bush as President of the USA in 2004. I read a version updated to 2016 with a few extra essays about the intervening years. It inspired me to become more politically active – even in small ways – because that can make a difference. While it’s easy to feel like the world is falling apart around us – politically, socially, and environmentally – rather than stepping back and feeling despair and hopelessness (because that shit will get nothing done), we all need to feel hope and take steps to change the future to help change these things. I feel like I can do that after reading Hope in the Dark.

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What Happened – Hillary Rodham Clinton

17 hours of Hillary Rodham Clinton reading her book to me (audiobook!) and I feel sadness at what american voters did last year, I feel like I understand the issues much better than I did before reading this. I know much more about her Clinton’s whole career and the chapters on feminism are excellent. I cried several times during this audiobook, I was so moved by how she talks about the loss of the election and compares it to personal grief, but I left this book feeling hopeful, and empowered.

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The Good Immigrant – ed. by Nikesh Shukla

I wasn’t sure where to put The Good Immigrant in my crude categorisation of all non-fiction books, but I decided on politics because immigration is political. Brexit is political and has negatively impacted of the lives of BAME people in the UK. So here it is, in the politics category.

The Good Immigrant is 21 essays by BAME writers living in the UK. The stories deal with many themes, often about how feeling ‘other’ is rubbish, and stories about racism, but there’s also plenty celebrating positive aspects of being an immigrant in the UK. I enjoyed every single essay and it has also given me more writers to follow and find their other work. I would class The Good Immigrant as essential reading for anyone living in the UK. I’ve bought it for several people already! My longer review also inspired some good post-Brexit swearing *bonus*.

Feminism

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Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

Another collection of essays, another by the amazing Rebecca Solnit, from 2014. This time she is dealing with feminism, and she does it so well. I read Men Explain Things To Me and wished I could have all these perfect arguments at the tip of my tongue whenever I talk about feminism.

The title essay is the one that brought about the phrase mansplaining (though Solnit dislikes the term) and highlights this phenomena many of us have experienced.  The rest of the essays deal with other aspects of just why feminism is still needed and necessary. There is also beautiful artwork between the essays by Ana Teresa Fernandez.

She has a new collection of feminism essays out: The Mother of All Questions : Further Feminisms. I have a copy of this but haven’t started it because I already don’t want it to be over!

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Nasty Women – 404Ink

I love this collection of essays (theme!!! I didn’t even know how much I like essay collections before this year!). This time the essays are about being a woman in the 21st century. It was inspired by the Trump election, and of course his nasty woman jibe to Hillary Clinton.

The essays cover a huge range of themes: being fat and taking a flight, gendered violence in punk rock, being Puerto Rican and living under a Trump presidency, contraception, pregnancy, class, racism, loving Courtney Love, being a black woman in Scotland, and many more.

It also introduced me to the music of The Petrol Girls, and I am very grateful for this because they are brilliant!

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Here are all the non-fiction books I read this year (click to go to my review):

What were you favourite politics and feminism reads this year?

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My Top Science Reads for 2017

Having looked at all the non-fiction I’ve read this year, I’ve decided to split them up into science, politics and feminism, and biography and memoir, otherwise I would have a really long blog post summing it all up! I can’t quite believe I’ve managed to read 22 non-fiction books this year! and there’s still a few weeks left… what if I read another incredible book before January?

These are my favourite non-fiction science reads for the year, out of the ones I have read this year, not that they were necessarily published this year. Click on the images to go to my longer reviews.

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Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story – Angela Saini.

Inferior is a wonderful look at the history of scientists letting their own attitudes to women get in the way of the science they are doing. It looks at difficulties faced by female scientists through history, and the discrimination they faced which was then thrown back at them as ‘well look, women just aren’t as good at science’. You wouldn’t let double Nobel prize winning Marie Curie join the French Academy of Sciences because she was not a man. Imagine what all these women could have done with support and access to scientific education!

It looks at what are the actual scientific differences between the sexes, and is a rallying cry to get more women into science to end the dominance of old white men. Ok, that last bit may just be more my feelings after reading it.  As well as being really easy to read and understand, it’s funny (see my review for a bit more on this!).

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot.

Straying into the world of cell biology with this one. Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black women whose cancer cells were taken from her without permission. She died from this aggressive cervical cancer. Her cells turned out to be an immortal cell line (they keep dividing and don’t seem to have a limited number of divisions before they die, like most cells). They have revolutionised many areas of medical research and are known to scientists as HeLa.

The story of the cells would be interesting enough, but the real genius of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the story of Henrietta’s family. Her children didn’t find out about the cells until 25 years after the original sample was taken. The family had not received any science education and didn’t know what a cell was – they imagined the scientists had Henrietta chopped up in labs, and all sorts of horrific ideas. By the time Rebecca Skloot investigates the story it is a further 20 years later.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a celebration of the advancement of science, and a heart breaking story about the human, and the family, behind those little samples of cells.

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Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet – Dallas Campbell

This is a beautiful book full of pictures and stories and facts and history all related to leaving planet Earth. Dallas Campbell has found the most interesting stories about the history of space travel, the current state of space travel, and where it might go in the future. You will read about space cats and tortoises, things smuggled into space, astronaut testing, and moon rock detectives. It’s a book I know I will find myself dipping back into many times to re read.

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Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain

Quiet is about the strengths of introverts. We live in a society that seems to put all the value on extrovert qualities, yet introverts have brilliant things to offer the world. Quiet can help people understand their own introversion, help them accept and recognise its value, and can help extroverts understand the introverts around them.

I’m very clearly an introvert and it was nice to read a book all about how great that is. It also deals with a personal bugbear of mine: that being quiet and being shy are not always the same thing 😀

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Here are all the non-fiction books I read this year (click to go to my review):

What were you favourite science reads this year?

Book Review: Ad Astra: An Illustrated Guide to Leaving the Planet – Dallas Campbell

Who hasn’t dreamed of leaving the planet? In Ad Astra Dallas tells you everything you might need to know to make this happen. From who can currently get you up to space, to what you should pack etc. Every page of Ad Astra is jam packed with stories, facts, beautiful pictures and all the detail you ever wanted to know, and even more that you had no idea you needed to know, but my god, how did you live without this information!?!! I mean, space tortoises and moon rock detectives!

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I had pre-ordered my copy of Ad Astra a few months before it arrived. I was very happy when it arrived as you can see!

It’s the perfect book for dipping into or for a longer read. I’ve come out of Ad Astra with a renewed interest in all things current in space travel. I know more about these current and future space adventures, and I know so much more about the history of space travel from early dreamers, to the people responsible for the first rocket engines. Considering I have a physics background, it’s amazing that I didn’t already know 90% of the information in Ad Astra. 

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Rope memory. Fricken’ fabric memory. 

Ad Astra begins with the stories of early dreamers, like Francis Godwin, writer of The Man In The Moone. In 1648 he imagined his hero Francis Gonsales tethering some Lunar Geese to fly to the Moon. This geese story is referred back to all through the book in the loveliest ways and it really helps draw the different aspects of Ad Astra together.

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*sniggers*

Dallas Campbell is a genius space story detective, and he has written a marvellous, interesting, fascinating book about all things space travel. It is full of beautiful space-related pictures too. As well as all the brilliant facts, there’s poetry, music, and a recipe. I quizzed to see if I am an astronaut (non-spoiler: I am definitely not astronaut material) and now have a list of places I want to visit that hold a special place in the history of space travel, or  hold some of the preciously small amount of moon material we have here on Earth. I also have a list of books to read to get even more information, and a lot of films I need to watch.

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Under its cover it’s hiding a beautiful shiny silver spine. 

I loved Ad Astra, and will continue to dip into it to remind myself of some great story I read in it, or to tell someone about some obscure, fascinating space travel fact. I would highly recommend it for anyone who has the slightest interest in space, space travel, or even history!  I forgot to mention earlier that it’s not a huuuge book either, so you can carry it around with you and whip it out at any opportunity to impress your friends and family. 😀

Book Review: Under My Thumb: The Songs That Hate Women and the Women That Love Them – ed. by Rhian E Jones and Eli Davies

As a music lover with my fair share of songs that hate women that I love, I knew I needed to read this book. It is a lot of different essays covering a huge range of genres.

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I liked this book, and enjoyed reading all the essays. Though, as is to be expected when a book covers a very narrow topic, it does get a bit repetitive.  There’s hardly any resolution to the stories because of course, these are about problematic songs that the authors love. There’s not realllllly much to say beyond: I love this song, it is problematic, here is my justification for still enjoying it. Having said that, I still really liked reading it!

… how was I supposed to use my feminist ideals to fight the art which had already penetrated my core?

I’ve written before about my own problem music collection and how I listen to a lot of male artists and bands (here’s my post about it) and I also targeted the female artists and bands to watch, at a punk festival I went to in the summer (read about my Rebellion festival adventures here). I must admit, that post is my all time most viewed post ever by a very long way – it got shared amongst some punk fan groups on Facebook that I’m thankful I couldn’t see the comments on (I had a few reported back to me and they were not. very. pleasant.). This was my first little brush with getting negative comments for writing about feminism, and it just makes me admire the women who very publicly talk about these things even more – like the authors of this book!

It also reminded me of one of my favourite Onion articles: Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show. 😀

There are a lot of different essays in Under My Thumb – at least 25. I had an ebook version so it’s not so easy to just look at the contents and count. Some of my favourites are: From Enslavement to Obliteration: Extreme Metal’s Problem With Women by Jasmine Hazel Shadrack, I’ve Got Your Letter, You’ve Got My Song: On Pinkerton -by Marissa Chen, and Breaking Binary Codes: On Being a Female Fan Who Prefers Music Produced by Men by Larissa Wodtke. This last one starts with the line:

As a heterosexual female who often doesn’t identify with femaleness…

I get that and how this can make it easier to dismiss misogyny in music. I enjoyed this exploration of becoming more and more bothered by it and realising why it really does matter.

My own personal relationship with songs that hate women can roughly be summed up by:

  • Elvis Presley – but it was the 1950s so I justify it that way.
  • a lot of punk bands – I don’t listen to the main offending songs.
  • Slaves – a band I love, but increasingly I’m turned off by the number of songs that are really quite horrible about women. I’ve listened out for some positive lyrics about women and I’m not getting very far. It’s increasingly disappointing.

I feel better when I love bands that seem to either hate everyone equally, or write positively about women! Luckily there’s far more of these.

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p.s. I received a copy of this book free from netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks netgalley!

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

Rebecca Skloot has written a triumphant book about Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells that have revolutionised cell biology. Skloot has turned the scientific story of an exceptional cell line into a deeply human story about family, loss, and understanding.

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In case you don’t know the story of these amazing HeLa cells, from the back of the book:

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists knew her as HeLa. Born a poor, black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than 20 years after her death, with devastating consequences… Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary detective story in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.

Henrietta died in 1951, and it wasn’t until the 1970s that her family became aware of the HeLa cell line. They then spent over 20 years without any real understanding of what it meant for their mothers cells to be essential for medical testing. They heard stories about them being cloned, sent to space, blown up in atom bombs, mixed with animal DNA, all sorts of things. None of them understood the science, and they imagined all sorts of horrific scenarios. The family were also aware that some people had made an awful lot of money by selling these cells from their mother.

“… If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?”

Lawrence Lacks, Henrietta’s son.

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lunchtime reading!

Eventually, Skloot wins the trust of the Lacks family, particularly Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter. This is in the early 2000s. It’s not an easy trust to win, but eventually Deborah begins to join Skloot on research visits, and they begin to uncover the truth about what happened to Henrietta Lacks. The chapters where Deborah, and her brother Zakariyya, go to meet a researcher and see their mother’s cells under the microscope for the first time is incredibly moving.

Deborah then goes with Skloot to the institution her sister lived and died in and finds they have her autopsy records and a photograph of her. This is part of the human story of the Lacks family, and is connected to the HeLa cell story because Deborah may have known more about her sister if her mother hadn’t died so young. It’s so real the pain and suffering Deborah has been through. It’s completely heartbreaking. She has had to grow up without a mother, as well as trying to understand what happened to her mother after her death, and then discovering information about her sister, is incredible.

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prosecco and campari to help with evening reading. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks manages to be a fantastic introduction to the very basics of cell biology and how research is carried out on cells. It’s a wonderful story of scientific discovery and advancement. It is equally a moving story of family and loss. Thirdly it deals with medical ethics – the ethics of cells being taken from patients without any consent, the fact that people have made millions from the cells while the family have stayed very, very poor, and the fact that this is a story of a white, male establishment taking advantage of a poor, black woman.

Lawrence fell back in his chair and stared into his lap, his smile collapsing. After a long quiet moment, he turned and looked into my eyes.

“Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?” he whispered. “I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.”

When I asked if he knew what a cell was, he stared at his feet as if I’d called on him in class and he hadn’t done his homework.

“Kinda,” he said. “Not really.”

I have barely any knowledge of biology (physics is my specialist science knowledge topic!) and I found this book fascinating. Just learning about the impact Henrietta’s cells have had on the world would be a brilliant story – it’s just made even better by all the other aspects. I would really highly recommend it. I can’t wait to try and track down the TV movie made of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks earlier this year – staring Oprah and Rose Byrne!

Ten Books I’m Thankful For

I’ve seen a few bloggers take part in this – it is part of The Broke and The Bookish’s top ten tuesdays. The theme is due to it being thanksgiving in the states. There’s a lot more non-fiction in this list than I was expecting before I starting trying to write it.

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Matilda – Roald Dahl. I loved this book when I was a child (along with most other Roald Dahl books). Matilda taught me that reading books is ace and there can be power in thinking and using your brain. I was also a massive library fan so I loved Matilda’s use of the library!

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In Search Of Schrodingers Cat – John Gribbin. This one made me certain I wanted to pursue physics for my degree. Along with A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking, and many other popular physics books – I couldn’t read enough of them when I was a teenager.  I don’t read so many now, but still love them when I do (I can’t even remember the last one I read, but I have 5 or 6 on my shelves waiting to be picked up!)

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Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernieres. I know I’ve mentioned this before, but this novel is the first time I read a book and just wept through the last few pages. It blew my mind to realise a book could emotionally move me like this. I was about 19 when I read it! I’d always been a big reader, but just hadn’t read the right stuff apparently.

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The Demon-Haunted World – Carl Sagan. Here Sagan sets out why more people learning about the scientific method would be better for humanity. People would be better equipped to protect themselves from pseudoscience and fraudsters. I love it and would still recommend everyone buys a copy for a teenager they know, or just anyone who hasn’t read it!

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Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – Richard Feynman. This collection of stories about Feynman’s life is full of fun and physics. Feynman is a curious man and his zest for life comes across in every story. It challenged the stereotype of the quiet geek physicist for me.

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The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck. Another story that I will never forget – especially the incredible final scene. I was so moved by that, and equally shocked. This novel is a moving portrait of human suffering.

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The God Delusion – Richard Dawkins. I’ve always been an atheist as an adult, but The God Delusion really cemented a lot of my ideas. I don’t always agree with Dawkins – especially not in recent years with some of the bobbins he comes out with, especially on twitter. but I adored reading The God Delusion.

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Riders – Jilly Cooper. This book is in here because I’ve found that knowledge of Rupert Campbell-Black and co. is a helpful female bonding experience. This saucy tale is also a great read. I’ve read the whole series. and would quite like to know other authors who write a good story with some rude bits. *rubs thighs* 😀

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Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine (review and review!). I picked this up because I wanted to understand more about how I could help the girls I teach have more confidence with their physics and maths ability. As well as helping me with this, it also told me so much about myself. Particularly the description of girls who like maths and science, and how often they reject traditional female stereotype characteristics. It’s much more complex than I can suggest in one sentence, but essentially I read loads of it mouth agape reading about myself. My daughter was also a toddler when I read Delusions of Gender, and there is a whole section on gender and children. Living with my pink princess walking stereotype it really helped me. I am not a pink princess type of person (huge understatement) and I really have struggled to have a daughter who is girly to the extreme. I loved every minute of reading Delusions.

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I could easily link reading Delusions of Gender with a sort of feminist reawakening I’ve had in the last few years. I could also have put How to be a Woman – Caitlin Moran – accessible, funny feminism, or Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me (review). All brilliant books that I wish I could remember word for word to recite to people.

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Hope In The Dark – Rebecca Solnit (review). I’ve chosen this Solnit book because I feel like this one has educated me about activism. It’s a beautiful book that sets out hope as being essential. It details how small acts of activism have inspired huge political, environmental, and social changes.

It was nice looking back at books that have really meant a lot to me over the years. Let’s hear yours!

 

Book Review: What Happened – Hillary Rodham Clinton

Hillary Clinton hasn’t featured in my life significantly until the last few years. I got particularly interested in US politics (and in politics, in general) during the early 2000s, where a few years living in Chicago made me aware of Obama, and I followed his election particularly closely. I knew who she was, of course, I was a teenager during the 90s. Last year I watched the entire of Gilmore Girls in the Summer and had also been following (with increasing horror) the US election. I was stunned that Donald Trump became the US President. Stunned and also knowing if it really had just happened, then there must be a whole pile of people shouting ‘We knew this would happen! We saw it coming!’ along with a whole series of issues that had led to this seemingly otherworldly outcome. I mean Donald Trump. Donald fucking Trump.

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But being surprised means you aren’t paying enough attention (Hello Brexit!). I wanted to understand more about how this had happened and I wanted to hear Clinton’s opinion on it. Hooray for What Happened – Hillary Clinton’s book on the election.

As well as the story of the 2016 election, we also get quite a lot about Clinton’s life. Her history as being ‘the first woman to…’ is astounding. The chapters on feminism are brilliant and the missed opportunity to break that final, US-based, glass ceiling is a tragedy. She talks about being Secretary of State, her work with the Clinton Foundation, her childhood, her experience as First Lady, and many other aspects of her life.

What Happened begins with Hillary Clinton’s take on the inauguration and the Women’s March that followed it. She explores her decision to attend the inauguration and her feelings about it. She goes on to describe the loss of the election and the month after losing. I found the this part of What Happened so emotional. She describes the loss of the election as true grief. She describes how she coped with this loss, and weaves in how she has coped with loss in her life in general. I cried during parts of What Happened – the mix of how great I think she would have been as President, with the total horror of Trump winning, combined with the fact that I only lost my Dad a few months ago just all came together with a feeling of just how awful it all is. I listen to audiobooks while driving to work, so this wasn’t the best combination. Still, thankfully the overwhelming feeling of this book isn’t self-pitying, or bitter. I came out the other side of What Happened feeling hopeful, and empowered, and more educated about the whole situation.

I’ve read some reviews of What Happened that claim Clinton doesn’t take on any of the blame herself for losing the election. That’s just plain wrong. She goes into lots of detail about her mistakes and things she wishes she did differently. She shoulders the blame she feels she deserves. She also explains where other blame lies – particularly with Russian involvement and the emails scandal. The announcement made by James Comey just days before the election about the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails being reopened is staggering when contrasted with his decision to NOT mention that Trump was also being investigated. This is widely thought to have thrown the election in Trump’s favour, though it doesn’t explain why it was going to be a close race in the first place. Clinton delves into this too and offers a comprehensive guide to why it was going to be a close election.

The last part of the book offers Clinton’s thoughts on where work should be focused going forward to try and make positive changes for future US elections. She hopes her experiences in politics will inspire the next leaders, and women and girls everywhere.

It’s tricky looking to UK politics for inspiration. The women who’ve reached the top spot exist but with such differing politics to myself it’s hard to hold them up. Thatcher and May. Please. God. No. This is one reason why Hillary holds such appeal to me. She reflects my politics much more closely. And this is why I felt her pain, and the pain of this lost opportunity to have a female President of the United States, along with so many other people. I wept for the missed opportunity during Hillary’s telling of this tale. But I left the book feeling hopeful, and strong and empowered and looking forward to the future where someone will succeed where Hillary failed at the final hurdle.

I found What Happened to be a fascinating audiobook. It’s nice that Hillary Clinton read it out for me 😀 I would recommend it to anyone interested in Clinton or the election of 2016. I’ve found it has even helped me understand some aspects of the election that I already thought I understood, and now feel much clearer on. I only finished listed to What Happened today and I have so much more of it to go over and digest properly.

Do yourself a favour and listen to this audiobook, or read the paper one – it’s a great book.