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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. 😀

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Books Bought and Read November 2017

Books Bought

I was doing very well at not buying a single book this month, then the black friday deals broke me.

Earlier in the month I used a few of my audible credits to get:

SPQR – Mary Beard (though having read a review, I’m not sure it will work that well as an audiobook. Think there will be diagrams and references it would be better if I can see them). Too late now!

Mythos – Stephen Fry. All part of trying to address a big gap in my education to ultimately help me be better at Learned League quizzes.

Dracula – Bram Stoker. A classic I’ve really wanted to get round to, especially after reading Frankenstein this year.

Then as I mentions, Black Friday sales broke my resolve and I ordered 6 books. They are all good uns though! They are:

  • Nina Is Not Ok – Shappi Khorsandi
  • It Only Happens in the Movies – Holly Bourne
  • Moxie – Jennifer Mathieu
  • Hidden Figures – Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
  • Scrappy Little Nobody – Anna Kendrick

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I only bought two kindle books on the daily deal:

Seabiscuit – Laura Hillenbrand

The Outsider – Albert Camus.

So really, I did quite well for three weeks. Then just did all by book purchasing in one go! 😀

Books Read

Click for link to the review

Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller

Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Lies We Tell Ourselves – Robin Talley

What Happened – Hillary Rodham Clinton

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women That Love Them – ed. by Rhian E Jones.

Bedtime Stories

The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me – Roald Dahl. I’ve never read this one before!

Fantastic Mr Fox – Roald Dahl. Or this one. I read all the longer novels when I was a child (well, all the ones my local library had).

The Magic Faraway Tree – Enid Blyton. My son absolutely loves the adventures of Silky, Moon-face, and the children.

The german book – My daughter is just fascinated by the busy scene pictures in this book. We don’t usually even say the German words – I say the name of an item, and she finds it in the picture.

Stories for Girl – Various vacuous stories about fairies and mermaids mermaid. I didn’t buy this book, and obviously my daughter thinks it’s the best book ever!

Crystallising Chaos – My little pony story. I’ve read this so many times! *despair*

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!

Audiobook Review: Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens – Eddie Izzard

I’ve decided to highlight that this was the audiobook version I read because it has so many footnotes, it must be at least double the length of the actual book. Around fourteen and a half hours worth of Eddie Izzard’s life story, and I loved it.

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He’s certainly had an interesting, eventful, and quite tragic life. We start the book by finding out that his mum died when he was 6. He was then sent to boarding school with his older brother so his father could continue working. Before this happened he had a lovely time being at home with his family, hanging around with the neighbourhood kids, no idea that he would ever go to boarding school. It’s so sad reading about such a young boy being sent away.

We find out about boarding school life, and then how he spends his 20s trying to make it as a performer. He tried sketch comedy, and street performing, before finally making a success of stand up comedy when he was around 30. This highlights how determined he has been and how he grafted for a decade before getting successful, even though his early 90s rise in stand up comedy if often portrayed as swift.

There is an extraordinary amount of references to the Nuffield Physics syllabus of the 70s that he studied while doing A level physics. The syllabus was unusual in that it relied heavily on performing experiments to learn the theory. He refers back to this Nuffield syllabus at many key moments of his life, when he needed to make a decision. I found this very funny, because as an A level physics teacher, I know the course he’s referring to (as a historical A level physics course – not that I am old enough to have taken it or taught it!!!).

We don’t get many details about his personal relationships. It doesn’t detract from the book at all. Really it’s none of our business, and his life is interesting enough with out these details. We do get to hear a lot about his alternative sexuality, which is his own term for his transgender, or in the 80s transvestite, status. It terribly sad that essentially he’s had lots of issues in life because he likes wearing clothes that are traditionally female, and he likes to wear make up. I dress in traditionally mens clothes all the time and no one bats an eyelid. Society is so fucked up!

I really admire Eddie Izzard’s attitude to so many aspects of his life. I love him when he’s talking about atheism. And his footnotes are well worth getting the audiobook version for. His determination really shines through his entire life and follows him all the way to his Sport Relief mega marathon challenges.

Funnily enough, I don’t think I’ve ever watched any of his comedy. I will clearly need to seek some out very soon.

Book Review: How Hard Can Love Be? – Holly Bourne.

Amber is spending the summer, after her first year at college, working at an American summer camp. The camp is run by her recovering alcoholic mother, who she hasn’t seen for two years. How Hard Can Love Be? is a great, easy read. Obviously a YA book and a great follow up to the AMAZING Am I Normal Yet?

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There’s a whole heap of mother – daughter issues to deal with, on top of the usual 17 year old stuff. Amber grew up with her alcoholic mother and when she recovered she left to live in California with someone she met at the recovery centre. Amber has also never kissed a boy and she might be working with some hot American boys at camp. And she has the whole being really tall and ginger thing to deal with too!

This is the second book in The Spinster Club trilogy – the first being Am I Normal Yet? Each book in the trilogy is the story of one of the Spinster Club members: Evie, Lottie, and Amber. The three college friends start the club to discuss feminism and women’s issues. The coming together of the friends is covered in Am I Normal Yet? That is Evie’s story of her dealing with mental illness and starting college. She becomes friends with Amber and Lottie over the first year of college. Amber is the tall, ginger, arty one and Lottie is the clever one.

How Hard Can Love Be? is set after their first year at college, during the summer break. Amber is in California, but she still gets email and video chat support from her fellow spinster club members. I really enjoy this aspect of the book. Amber is frustrated at the full-on, sexually obvious, cheerleader girl who is also working at camp. Her friends discuss this during their Spinster Club meetings and it’s nice that they try to look at her from a feminist perspective and give a different view on lots of the usual teenage issues. I imagine this could be really useful to a teenager reading the book, who still getting to grips with different perspectives.

There’s some Harry Potter references too. What more can you possibly want?!

And I was about to judge her, when she said “I’m so mad they got rid of Slytherin, I mean, Snape was, like, the best one,” as she walked over, and I learned a lesson about not judging people until you’ve found out whether or not they’ve read Harry Potter.

Word.

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me hanging out in Dumbledore’s office

I really enjoyed this book, and can’t wait to read Lottie’s story in the final part of the trilogy: What’s a Girl Gotta Do?

Book Review: Anger is an Energy – John Lydon

I like John Lydon. He is straight to the point and I agree with a lot of his core attitudes and beliefs. That’s not to say I agree with everything he says, and boy, does he have a lot to say. At almost 520 pages this is no quick read. Still, I loved every minute of it. You are fully getting his no holds barred opinions here. Or if he is holding back, you certainly can’t tell!

If you stand up for whatever it is you really believe in, if you really stand up, and be accounted for, people will rate you highly.

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Anger is an Energy on the kindle with some other punk books!

His account of the Sex Pistols days is fascinating and quite sad. He felt alone and disregarded and/or ignored by the rest of the band most of the time. It comes across that the other three (Glen Matlock, Steve Jones and Paul Cook) never really accepted him fully into the band, as they already formed the band before John came along. I have no doubt that John, as he freely admits, isn’t the easiest person to get along with! and he just rubbed them up the wrong way (a theme throughout the book). I would definitely like to read some other accounts of that time period to get some other perspectives on what happened. As you can see from the picture above, I have Steve Jones’ book ready to go.

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L-R Glen Matlock, John Lydon, Steve Jones, and Paul Cook.

 

It is fascinating though. That band were truly at the heart of an amazing moment in history. It probably helps that I’m a fan of punk rock. I love his scorn of the majority of punk bands. I share a lot of the same views. So many identikit bands trying to out macho each other. Repulsive. The bands he praises are all stand out bands like the Buzzcocks. He hates that punk quickly became very narrow in its definition: there’s a certain uniform, a haircut, a way of treating people, a sound – and woe betide anyone who doesn’t conform. John refuses to be narrowly defined – especially musically, but actually in every aspect of his life, and so he gets constant abuse in his life beyond the Sex Pistols. A constant minority who seek him out and are angry because he ‘sold out’. In other words, he dared to move on and try new things that musically interest him.

Being open-minded to all kinds of music was Lesson One in punk, but that didn’t seem to be understood by many of the alleged punk bands that followed on after, who seemed to be waving this idea of a punk manifesto. I’m sorry, but I never did this for the narrow-minded. I was horrified by the cliche that punk was turning into.

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The Sex Pistols after Sid Vicious had replace Glen Matlock. L-R Steve Jones, Sid Vicious, John Lydon, Paul Cook. 

Earlier in the book we get some of his home life growing up. He’s from a very working class London background. His descriptions of himself at school were great and really clear – I know EXACTLY what sort of student he would have been in my classroom – one of those cheeky, annoying but lovable ones! Frustrated with their lack of effort because you can’t follow their particular interest all the time. Full of questions that are related, but are a distraction to what you actually need to teach that day. Oh, sorry, just having high school teaching flash backs there!

His move from a school to basically a technical college for naughty kids chucked out of school is interesting and there he meets Sid. I love this quote about his time at the technical college. The idea that he still wore his school uniform is absurd, and says so much about his personality!

It was basically just school by any stretch, so I wore my William of York uniform still, because I didn’t want to wear anything that I liked. But it was a bit of a fashion parade. Sidney certainly used it as a catwalk.

After Glen Matlock leaves the Sex Pistols, Sid is brought in and the break up of the band seems almost inevitable at this point. It’s such a dysfunctional relationship they all have.

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Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten (aka John Ritchie and John Lydon)

After the Sex Pistols you get a lot of details about line up and management changes for Public Image Limited (PiL). I’m not familiar with the musicians from this band, and didn’t know any of the many people discussed. It’s still interesting, but in more of a vague way of seeing how all over the place the band and John’s life was. This continues up until the later 90s where you get a Sex Pistols reunion tour. Then in the 2000s there is I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here – which I remember watching because Lydon was on it. Followed by a few nature programs he makes. And of course the infamous butter commercials!

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John Lydon by Paul Heartfield from http://www.clashmusic.com/features/in-conversation-john-lydon

At this stage you discover that Lydon, and his wife Nora, begin to parent Nora’s grandchildren. It’s a sweet part of the book where he explains how they had to change their lives to give everything they could to these wild teenagers that they were suddenly responsible for. All the parts of the book where he describes his love for Nora are quite beautiful. They fell in love when they met during the Sex Pistols time, in 1975, and they are still together today.

Overall, this is a great book. It possibly helps if you have some interest in Lydon to begin with, but I imagine you must if you are considering reading 520 pages about him! It’s glorious that there is a note from the publisher at the beginning basically begging you to not sent in grammatical errors from the text – Lydon has his own way of using English and the ‘mistakes’ are just how he is talking!

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‘Don’t let tiffles cause fraction’

Lydon is upfront, unapologetic, harsh, and uncompromising. But he’s also a family man, loyal, a supporter of education, and interested in everything the world has to offer. There’s a place for him at the table of my imaginary perfect dinner party anyway.

Book review: Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Oh my god. I just don’t give a shit about the pheasant chicks, or the brambles in the allotment, or the hawthorn bush, or the fieldfares in the meadow. Reservoir 13 has 13 chapters, each spanning a year in the life of a Peak District village. It opens with the disappearance of a 13 year old visitor to the village, Becky, or Bex, or Rebecca. She is lost on the moors and no trace of her is found.

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The disappearance is revisited fairly often in the following chapters. A lot of them ending with a statement about her disappearance. There is repetition between the 13 chapters as the girl is still missing, her whereabouts unknown, but life still has to move forward.

We slowly get to know a lot of characters in the village. Some move on, some move in. Relationships start, and relationships end. We get snippets of village life. After around 8 years worth of tiny fragments of village life I started getting who everyone was. They often do the same things year after year because that’s what people do.

Almost every other sentence is a statement about what the natural world is doing at that time of year. Good god, it was tedious.

At first I wondered if I wasn’t enjoying it because I was listening to an audio book version of it. I’ve never really done audio books (except the Harry Potter series about 10 years ago when I had a particularly long commute to work) but the kindle version and paper book versions were really expensive, so I’ve got an audible trial. I needed to read it this week because it’s my book club read and we are meeting this week (review will be published as we meet!). I’m now really glad I didn’t read this myself because looking at some reviews, there are hardly any paragraphs and speech isn’t distinguished from any other text?!

Other reviews of Reservoir 13 are full of praise. I just can’t join in. I’m so glad it’s over and feel a bit mad that I wasted my time on it. Perhaps I’m supposed to see something deeper. The reviews would have you believe that you really should. Well, I obviously like my fiction to be upfront and interesting at face value. I don’t want hidden depth behind a boring story.

I need to add in something positive… at least I know what a fieldfare is now.

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**spoiler alert**

 

You don’t even find out what happened to the girl. There is no story, no protagonist, nothing. It’s a monotonous, repetitive soap opera about some ordinary village folk who basically have the most depressing lives.

Urghhh