Category Archives: review

Wake – Anna Hope


Set over five days in November 1920, Wake follows the lives of 3 women in the aftermath of the First World War, in the run up to the burial of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey. It focuses on the effect of the war on the women left behind, and the general disruption to society in the years afterwards.

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Wake manages to get across the feeling of collective grief felt by society after the war, and the dreadful situations many people found themselves in, particularly the poor soldiers who were traumatised, then abandoned by the government shortly after they returned home.

The chapters are interspersed with the story of the Unknown Warrior: the finding of a suitable body, the process of transporting it from France, and finally the burial. I liked how this linked the different stories, with it being the big news of the day, all the characters discuss it.

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The three main stories in the book are about Hettie, a dancer at the Hammersmith Palais, whose brother has returned from the war a broken man. Evelyn, who lost her lover during the war and is now living a very grey existence without him. Finally, Ada whose son is missing, presumably dead, but she never received an official letter about him.

The stories of these women mean that a large cross section of the whole society are covered by the story. Different age groups and classes are all involved, and all are broken by the war in different ways.

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Wake was chosen by my book club as we would be meeting near Remembrance Day. I really enjoyed in and was particularly glad to not have to read a book about how grim life in the trenches was. It was nice to read about how grim life in the UK could be after the war. 😀

The burial of the Unknown Warrior gives a potentially depressing book a more hopeful ending as it signifies the start of a collective healing for society and for some of our main characters. I really enjoyed Wake and would definitely recommend it.

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Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman is a really strange story of Keiko Furukura and her life working at a convenience store.  She’s an odd character and the job suits her because there’s a manual telling her how to behave and interact with customers.

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Keiko has been waiting her whole life for someone to just tell her how to behave with other people, because she has no clue herself. She seems to be devoid of any empathy. As a child, Keiko, has a few violent episodes where she is reacting to something very literally, and she has no idea why everyone is upset with her. Motivated by not wanting to upset her parents, she withdraws and asks her sister for advice on occasions when she wants to appear normal.

Finding the job at the convenience store is life changing for her because of the beloved manual.

“We’ve got quite similar tastes, haven’t we? I like your bag too,” Mrs. Izumi said with a smile. It’s only natural that my tastes would match hers since I’m copying her.

Things go well for Keiko for the next eighteen years, until she is getting so old that people start questioning her life. Why is she not married? Why does she still basically work at Spar? Honestly, these conforming weirdos should just leave her alone. Quite why other people are so concerned is beyond me. Most of the story is Keiko trying to deflect this negative attention from her and keep the appearance of normality.

The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.

So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.

Finally I finally understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me.

Overall, I finished Convenience Store Woman and just didn’t really know how I felt about it! I enjoyed reading it, but it left me feeling quite disturbed. As though Keiko’s story is not really finished and something very, very sinister is lurking just around the corner for her… There’s one scene in the book that really hinted at this, and made me think the whole tone of the book was going to change, but it didn’t. Chilling!

Maybe I didn’t feel like I enjoyed it so much because I identified with Keiko in maybe too many ways. I’m quite socially awkward and also don’t like to do things just because society expects me to. I don’t have the no empathy thing though. Phew.

Overall I DID enjoy Convenience Store Woman, but it made me uncomfortable. This means it really evoked an emotional response and that’s generally what I want from a book. It’s just normally happiness or sadness! I haven’t been able to sit and write this review because I just couldn’t make my mind up about it! I finished it a month ago!

A lot of Convenience Store Woman is also really wry, and well observed, and funny. Keiko watching and commenting on other people is often funny and often very dark.

Now, however, it felt like he’d downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species.

Oh Keiko, we all get that. Urghhh.

Have you read Convenience Store Woman? What did you think?

I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human – Robin Ince

I was always going to read a book by Robin Ince because I’m a fan of the things he does, and happily, I’m a Joke is a great book.

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What is the book about? Rather than try and describe it myself, let’s have a look at the back of the book:

What better way to understand ourselves than through the eyes of comedians – those who professionally examine our quirks on stage daily? In this touching and witty book, award-winning presenter and comic Robin Ince uses the life of the stand-up as a way of exploring some of the biggest questions we all face. Where does anxiety come from? How do we overcome imposter syndrome? What is the key to creativity? How can we deal with grief?

Informed by personal insights from Robin as well as interviews with some of the world’s top comedians, neuroscientists and psychologists, this is a hilarious and often moving primer to the mind. But it is also a powerful call to embrace the full breadth of our inner experience – no matter how strange we worry it may be!

It’s a really enjoyable, easy to understand, interesting read about brains and the stuff they make you think.

If you find yourself thinking: I believe this writer is trying to engender a sense of ‘pity me’, then I am probably attempting to say, I was an idiot or I am an idiot or I will be an idiot again.

This is from quite near the beginning of I’m a Joke, and it just says to me that I will get along with this book.

 

I really enjoyed the chapter on voices you hear in your head and intrusive thoughts. It’s all interesting, and often funny too. He investigates day dreaming, the impact of events in your childhood on your adult brain, the idea of there being a ‘real you’, anxiety, and err…. death.

If anyone questions the sanity of your actions , just say it is art.

The interviews with different comedians and with scientist are a great addition to the text and give it a great balance between sciencey facts, and funny anecdotes. Probably worth reading just to hear Robin talk about his stage cardigan.

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supermarket bargains

If you haven’t already been to see Robin Ince’s stand up I would also recommend that. He is also part of my all time favourite podcast, with Josie Long: Bookshambles. Here they talk with guests about books. It’s where I get a lot of my recommendations from! Of course, if you are a science fan, you should also listen to The Infinite Monkey Cage with Ince and Brian Cox and guests.

The Mother of All Questions: Further Feminisms – Rebecca Solnit

The Mother of All Questions is Solnit’s follow up to the amazing Men Explain Things to Me (my review of this can be found here). Firstly, if you haven’t read Men Explain Things to Me, please rectify this immediately. It is a brilliant book that sets out all the basics of feminism and why it’s so bloody necessary in the modern world. It makes arguments that I wish I could always remember. It is brilliant.

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I *really* dislike the cover

The Mother of All Questions, as the follow up, is also excellent. But it doesn’t cover the same ground as Men Explain Things to Me. It’s more of a what has happened since that was published (2014), with some new ground covered. If I was to recommend only one of them to you, I would say read Men Explain, but really read both!

So what is covered in The Mother of All Questions? The format is essays on different subjects, I should probably have mentioned that first. Some of which have appeared in other places previously. The longest essay is about ways in which women are silenced. It opens with the title essay: about families and motherhood. There are also essays on the cultural change that seemed to happen around feminism in 2014, men and feminism, gun violence and misogyny, the recent history of the rape joke, and a few other short essays on various pop culture topics at the end of the book.

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My favourite essay was The Mother of All Questions. It is no exaggeration to say that I found this essay to be life changing, or at the least to entirely give me confidence with some hard decisions I made at the end of last year. It was life-affirming for me. Solnit discusses attitudes to motherhood and her own experience of how people treat her as a childless woman.

She begins by telling a story about a talk she gave on Virginia Woolf. A lot of audience questions were about Woolf’s childlessness.

What I should have said to that crowd was that our interrogation of Woolf’s reproductive status was a soporific and pointless detour from the magnificent questions her work poses. (I think at some point I said, “Fuck this shit,” which carried the same general message, and moved everyone on from the discussion.)

 

In the long essay on silence, I underlined a few key points. They are firstly a clarification between silence and quiet:

for the purposes of this essay, regard silence as what is imposed and quiet as what is sought.

I like that and I’ll remember this difference. I don’t really think its something I’ve thought about before.

Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.

and

What we call politeness often means training that other people’s comfort matters more.

We could all do with remembering that every now and then.  Finally:

Being a woman is a perpetual state of wrongness, as far as I can determine. Or, rather, it is under patriarchy.

This essay takes up 50 pages of the book, and the whole thing is less than 200 pages altogether. It a wide ranging essay and is well worth a read. Some of it is reminiscent of Mary Beard’s Women and Power (my review here) and Beard’s lectures that Women and Power are based on, are discussed in Solnit’s essay.

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I love Solnit’s writing, so I was always going to love this book. It doesn’t disappoint.

In Our Mad and Furious City – Guy Gunaratne

Set in a London estate in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, In Our Mad and Furious City, explores the life of five of the estate residents. It’s a brilliant book about life in London, and struggles against racism, oppression, religious expectations, and uniting them all – poverty. I was rooting for all these characters so badly during the latter stages of the story. No spoilers here though, don’t worry!

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new hair

Three of the characters are young men on the estate. Selvon is an athlete desperate to be able to escape the estate life. Yusuf a muslim boy whose father, the local Imam, died. He is being watched over by the new leaders of the mosque. And Ardan, a boy obsessed with music and a talented grime artist himself, held back by such low self worth. These three are friends, and spend hours playing football on the square between the four tower blocks of the estate, along with a background cast of diverse estate characters.

Added to these three young voices are two older characters. Nelson, his thoughts trapped inside his head after a stroke, he came over to London as a young man in the 1960s from Montserrat. He thinks back to when he arrived, with gangs of Teddy Boys terrorising the black community, Mosley standing for election locally, and racist violence all around.  Finally there is Caroline, a single mother from Ireland, haunted by her family’s involvement with the IRA.

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wine and a book = saturday party time

Each character has a distinct vernacular and reading from each characters perspective is a real joy from a language point of view. The young men each have their own struggles while outwardly navigating the social hierarchies around them, and obsessing over girls and grime.

In Our Mad and Furious City is set in the aftermath of a terrorist incident where a young black man kills a soldier. It’s reminiscent of the murder of Lee Rigby from 2013. This is the incident that Gunaratne used as inspiration for the story, after the video showing Rigby’s killers went viral, Gunaratne says the thing that was so striking was how the killers were so familiar to him, and he could see himself in them, and how they spoke, rather than identifying with the soldier. This is what he wanted to explore, and provides the set up for In Our Mad and Furious City. In the opening chapter, Selvon expresses how the viral video of the killer seemed just like one of the lads from school, from the estate:

He called himself the hand of Allah, but to us he looked as if he had just rolled out the same school gates as us. He had the same trainers we wore. Spoke the same road slang we used. The blood was not what shocked us. For us it was his face like a mirror, reflecting our own confused and frightened hearts.

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The reason I picked up In Our Mad and Furious City to read was because Guy Gunaratne was one of the writers speaking at a Manchester Literature Festival event I went to last week. I’m so glad I read this book, and hearing him talk about his own life and his inspiration for the book was really fascinating.

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Anita Sethi, Guy Gunaratne, and Nikesh Shukla at Waterstones, Deansgate. 

London and the estate life are a strong presence throughout the story. The current of violence and extremism in the air after the terrorist incident is prevalent throughout, and builds in the background through the several days over which the story is set. It took me until about half way through the book before I really felt invested in the characters and the story, but oh, I was not let down by the emotional roller coaster of the second half. I desperately wanted every character to get exactly what they wanted: to escape, improve or make their lives happy.

As a teacher, I really enjoyed the aspects of the story that were to do with the young men building aspirations and talking about their school life. Selvon is the only character with aspirations to get to University and his training is part of his plan to get a scholarship to a sporty Uni. I loved, and felt so sad, at this exchange between Selvon and Ardan:

-What about you? You going uni? you apply?

Shrug the question off, as if. These are new rules now, ennet. During school term no-one ever spoke nuttan about no uni. Everyone was trying to bunk off school, not long it out. Now I’m left feeling like a BTEC dickhead just because I ain’t going uni and everyone else is. As if it was even my choice in the first place.

-How am I going to uni fam?

-Didn’t you get the grades?

-Blood, I did alright in mocks. But I dunced my GCSEs. I never got proper marks for sixth form. But they let me off, ennet. Mum’s on benefits and that, so.

Selvon looks away and I watch him think about it.

-What you gonna do then?

-Minimum wage, ennet.

I say it and give a laugh like fuck it.

I just want to hug Ardan and help him out! And that phrase ‘BTEC dickhead’ nearly killed me.

Great book. Would recommend to anyone 😀

 

Ponti – Sharlene Teo

Ponti is about three Singaporean women: Szu, an awkward and lonely teen, Circe, Szu’s abrasive new (only) friend, and Amisa, Szu’s cruel mother. We start out in 2003 when Szu and Circe are 16 and meet in high school. We are gradually introduced to Amisa’s childhood and teenage years, and Circe’s life in 2020. It’s a great story about the relationships between these women, and their shared and personal histories.

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The whole novel is set in Singapore. The oppressive, muggy heat and polluted atmosphere infect all the stages of the Ponti story.  There’s sweat and stench everywhere.

Amisa, Szu’s mother, was the star of some vanity project horror films, when she was around 20 years old. She was a stunningly beautiful Pontianak – a female vampiric ghost of a woman who dies in childbirth. This wasn’t the launch of the fabulous career she wanted, and by the time Szu is 16, she runs a clairvoyant business from their run down home, with her sister. Szu’s mother is bitter and cruel, especially to Szu.

Szu and Circe’s friendship is similarly strained. Circe can be viscous with her humour and makes sharp, cutting comments. Their friendship is intense, but unbalanced. Circe is well off and is able to get along with other girls, while Szu is awkward, clingy, and struggles to fit in.

In 2020 Circe is recently divorced, working for a digital marketing company and still as viciously funny as she was as a teenager. Her descriptions of how she feels about a tapeworm she has is just… great. And disturbing. This theme of monsters runs throughout the book. Sometimes the characters act like monsters, while there’s also the tape worm and the Pontianak horror film throughout the story.  We know from quite early on that Circe and Szu are no longer friends in 2020, and that something happened during their friendship at high school. Guilt is another theme that holds these characters together.

I read Ponti as an audiobook, read by Vera Chok, and it was really well narrated with a clear distinction between the different characters voices.

Since I’ve finished Ponti, I’ve read about the very scathing review of it that appeared in The Observer, and the backlash to this review of a debut novel. I do think a reviewers honesty is extremely important, but I disagree with this particular review because I loved this story! I have read books that have been very highly acclaimed, that I have hated though, so fair enough! (*cough* Reservoir 13 *cough*)

Overall I really enjoyed this story about these three complicated, interesting women. They all have flaws and this just makes the relationships more believable. I would really highly recommend Ponti!

Miss Nightingale’s Nurses – Kate Eastham

Ada Houston’s brother, and only surviving family, goes missing on Liverpool Docks. As she strongly suspects he has ended up on a ship to the Crimea, she follows and ends up becoming a nurse, helping the wounded of the Crimean War. Set in the 1850s, through Ada’s journey we find out about the origins of nursing as a profession, and about the Crimean War. It’s a really enjoyable read and I learnt loads from it too.

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breakfast.

In all honesty, I would never have picked this book to read in a million years. It doesn’t have a cover that appeals to me – it slightly makes me judge it and want to run away. I read it because it was chosen for a book club I’m in. And even more interestingly, Kate Eastham IS IN THE BOOK CLUB. No pressure then… I approached it with trepidation, but genuinely enjoyed it. I’m not even just being nice. It’s a really good book. The book club discussion was also really good because Kate was there (BRAVE!) and so we learnt a lot about the process of getting published too. It was a great night at book club!

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theming my picture with some NURSING STUFF

Ada Houston is a great character. She’s strong and quite feisty, without it being over the top. I loved the ending, which I won’t spoil here, but let’s just say that I was dreading one thing happening, and that thing didn’t happen, and I was very happy. Hahaha. She encounters Florence Nightingale briefly, on her way to the front. There she has a lot more to do with Mary Seacole.

I didn’t really know anything about Mary Seacole before reading Miss Nightingale’s Nurses, or much about the Crimean War at all. Coincidentally, my five year old daughter has been learning about Mary Seacole at school, and she saw the cover of Miss Nightingale’s Nurses and asked if the lady on the cover was Mary Seacole! I mean, no clearly not, but she recognised the type of nurses outfit from the Crimean War times. She then went on the tell me some facts about Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale (like before them, you could just do a job if you decided to, and then afterwards you had to be trained. They made hospitals clean. Florence had a lamp. And they were from 200 THOUSAND years ago. So close). So yeh, this book provided some sort of idyllic, educational moment in my household. Ha!

 

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That chocolate was completely EPIC.

Ada’s adventure allows us to travel right to the front and get fully involved in some Crimean War action. We get to find out about the horror of war for the soldiers, and also for the supporting people like the doctors and nurses. It’s definitely not a sanitised look at the effects of war – there are some quite detailed medical bits in this book! But above all else, it’s a good story and I enjoyed reading it.

This is the first in a series of books that are all generally themed around the history of nursing. The next book is about nursing after the Crimean War, in Liverpool. Where the Nightingale nurses came home and became established in hospitals.  I think this one will be interesting too!