Hello World by Hannah Fry, subtitled ‘How to Be Human in the Age of the Machine’ looks at the role of algorithms in modern life, from our everyday internet use to the justice system to creating works of art. Most of the discussion around algorithms tends to focus on the negative impact they can have with sat navs sending drivers off the edge of a cliff and data privacy concerns being two of the most well-known examples. Fry also looks at the positive benefits of algorithms as they are undoubtedly useful in research contexts such as monitoring cell patterns in order to diagnose cancer earlier. The real-world examples of how humans interact with algorithms are concisely written and this is an engaging popular science book which is straightforward enough for a layperson to grasp as an introduction to a complex topic. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Book Reviews
Bookworm by Lucy Mangan is a memoir of childhood reading, from her earliest memories as a small child reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ by Eric Carle, to her secondary school years in the late 1980s when Judy Blume books and the Sweet Valley High series were at the height of their popularity. Born in 1974 to northern Catholic parents, Mangan grew up in south east London and was a voracious reader from the start. Even though my formative years of childhood reading occurred over a decade later than Mangan’s, there is a significant amount of overlap in our literary diets. This isn’t very surprising given that Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and other staples have remained so popular over several generations, and it means that most readers will be familiar with much of what Mangan reminisces about here too. For the most part, we also have fairly similar taste in books – like Mangan, I prefer stories with fantasy elements to be at least partly grounded in the real world, and neither of us are great lovers of poetry (“All that feeling”). The exceptions are the ballet and pony stories favoured by Mangan and the late arrival of a series of books about a certain boy wizard which was a big part of my childhood reading.
Agent Sonya by Ben Macintyre is an account of the life of Ursula Kuczynski, born to a German Jewish family in 1907 who later became a Communist spy codenamed Sonya. She moved to Shanghai with her architect husband Rudi in 1930 and was recruited by Richard Sorge at the end of that year when she was six months pregnant with her first child. Over the next two decades, she rose to the rank of colonel in the Red Army, lived in Poland, Switzerland and the Cotswolds in England, contributed towards a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was later the handler of the Manhattan Project nuclear scientist Klaus Fuchs, passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and influencing the path of the Cold War. Her spy career was so successful that her request to take early retirement was granted – an exceptionally rare honour. Continue reading
The last ten months or so have been very tough for the publishing industry in general, and particularly challenging for small indie presses who have still succeeded in bringing brilliant new books in to the world during a pandemic no less. One of those is Exit Management by Naomi Booth which was published by Dead Ink Books last summer. Originally from the north of England, Lauren works at a City firm as a graduate HR executive and specialises in “exit management”, otherwise known as firing people in less corporate terms. She is very ambitious about climbing the property ladder, even in a city where she discovers early on that a bedsit in Deptford will always be advertised as a “luxury studio in outer Greenwich”. Callum is a young man in his twenties who lives with his parents in Croydon and lands a job at GuestHouse, a company which finds elite temporary residences in London for the super-rich. Callum forms a close bond with one of his clients, József, a terminally ill elderly man who came to live in England from Hungary as a refugee in 1956. When Callum and Lauren meet by chance outside József‘s home in Elgin Mews, Lauren assumes that Callum owns the property, and the lives of the three characters become drawn together in unexpected ways. I think the characterisation is particularly strong in this novel, as it explores Lauren and Callum’s relationship in more interesting ways than just depicting their status as millennials inevitably struggling to get by in London. I look forward to reading Booth’s eco-horror debut novel ‘Sealed’. Continue reading
There are lots of reasons why 2020 has been an unusual year. One of them is that several books I have both read and enjoyed have won major literary prizes this year – more often than not, my longlist or shortlist preferences don’t get as far as taking the big cheques home with them. However, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Prize this year – a debut novel about a young boy growing up in 1980s Glasgow (and I’m still feeling smug about including it in my predictions post back in July before it was even longlisted). Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for its moving portrayal of the death of William Shakespeare’s young son. And One Two Three Four by Craig Brown was awarded the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-Fiction – a brilliantly original and comic biography of the Beatles told in 99 short chapters. Continue reading
The Fragments of my Father by Sam Mills is a memoir about the author’s experience of being a carer for both of her parents in different circumstances. Her father has had mental health problems including schizophrenia since she was a child. Her mother was later diagnosed with cancer and died in 2012, after which Mills became the main carer for her father. Mills interweaves a bit of literary biography of Virginia and Leonard Woolf and Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald and how their relationships were shaped by caring responsibilities. I might have expected the literary biography elements to feel like unnecessary padding to the book, but Mills makes a convincing case that Leonard has sometimes been unfairly portrayed as a controlling husband when Virginia’s illness meant that he had to make difficult decisions in her interests in his role as her carer. Mills also explores the impact of being a carer on her own creative life as a novelist as well as setting up and running the indie publisher Dodo Ink. She is very frank about the guilt she feels when taking even the briefest break away from her caring duties and how this has affected her relationships with other people. With around 6.5 million unpaid carers in the UK alone, ‘The Fragments of my Father’ makes an exceptionally strong case towards the need to improve financial and emotional support for those making personal sacrifices every day in order to provide care for their loved ones.
In between books from the Young Writer of the Year shortlist, I have been reading a lot of non-fiction during the November lockdown. The Cubans by Anthony DePalma is a narrative non-fiction account of the everyday lives of Cuban citizens in recent decades. It follows a handful of families based in the Havana suburb of Guanabacoa including an artist called Arturo, an engineer and company vice-president called Cart, and Jorge, who lost several close relatives when the 13 de marzo tugboat sank off the coast as dozens of Cubans attempted to leave for the United States. DePalma explains he has “set out not to bash the Cuban regime but to give voice to individuals whose lives have been overshadowed by those towering historical figures”. It is certainly true that Fidel Castro is instantly recognisable outside Cuba, whereas the dire economic consequences of the Special Period in the early 1990s and the reality of the restrictions placed on Cuban citizens are not as widely known or understood. This is reflected in the range of English-language books about Cuba which almost always focus on the country’s leadership rather than modern Cuba more generally, and this excellent account is a step in the right direction towards redressing that balance. Continue reading
I have been following the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award since its relaunch in 2015 and shadowed the prize in 2017. This year’s shortlist was announced on Sunday 1st November and consists of two poetry collections, two novels and one memoir. The titles are:
Surge by Jay Bernard
Inferno by Catherine Cho
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt
Nightingale by Marina Kemp
The poetry collections include Tongues of Fire by Sean Hewitt which draws on Hewitt’s time in Sweden, a translation of the Irish legend of Buile Suibhne, and his father’s terminal illness. Rooted in the natural world, these poems are very immersive, and deal with themes of identity and loss. Surge by Jay Bernard has already been shortlisted for several other major awards (Costa, Forward, Dylan Thomas and T. S. Eliot). It focuses on the New Cross house fire in south-east London in January 1981 which killed 13 black teenagers who were celebrating a birthday party. The cause has never been fully established but it is possible that the fire was started deliberately in a racist attack. In poems such as ‘Sentence’, Bernard explores parallels between the New Cross fire and the grief surrounding more recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Windrush scandal. I don’t read poetry very often, but I could see ‘Surge’ being a potential winner with its thoughtful exploration of a powerful central theme.
I borrowed Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett from the library because I really enjoyed reading The Bus on Thursday last year. Barrett’s debut novel was longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. Set in the early 20th century in the port town of Eden in New South Wales, ‘Rush Oh!’ is loosely based on the life of George Davidson, one of Australia’s most prominent master whalers at the time. During the 1908 season, his fictional teenage daughter, Mary, is tasked with supporting her father’s whaling crew and caring for her five siblings after their mother’s death, and the arrival of the mysterious former Methodist preacher, John Beck, proves to be a welcome distraction for her.
In ‘Rush Oh!’, Barrett strikes a good balance between the well-researched and brutal descriptions of whale hunting and the more gentle strands of Davidson family drama. Mary is a brilliantly imagined narrator, looking back on the events of her youth with amusingly chatty asides to the reader. In terms of genre, Barrett’s two novels to date couldn’t be more different, but they share a brilliant sense of humour and I look forward to reading more by Barrett in the future. Continue reading
I have read four books on this year’s Booker Prize longlist so far. All four are debut novels – there are eight in total on the 13-strong longlist – and two of them have made the shortlist.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid is about a young African-American woman, Emira, who is accused of abducting the white toddler she is looking after in an upmarket grocery store in Philadelphia. The toddler’s mother, Alix Chamberlain, is a wealthy white social media influencer who is at pains to show Emira how “woke” she is, lacking the self-awareness to realise that her attempts to be more progressive end up becoming the total opposite, and often result in her becoming more controlling and insecure. After the incident in the grocery store, Emira starts a relationship with Kelley Copeland, a white man who has a connection with Alix’s past. The novel is a slow-burn after the initial confrontation scene and the structure is a bit all over the place, but overall, ‘Such A Fun Age’ is subtly written with a great sense of irony and skewers “white saviour” hypocrisy very effectively. Continue reading
I didn’t read much in the way of medicine or health-related books during lockdown, but I have recently started thinking about books which will be eligible for the Wellcome Book Prize next year following its “pause” this year. The three books I have read so far are all powerful and memorable if far from cheerful in their chosen subject matter.
Coming Undone by Terri White is the author’s memoir of her addiction issues and subsequent mental breakdown. The book opens with an account of her admission to a psychiatric ward in a New York hospital. She then details the abuse she suffered during her childhood growing up in poverty in Derbyshire before embarking on a career as a magazine editor. She moved to New York in 2012 where her problems with substance abuse spiralled and her outwardly successful life eventually unravelled. It is difficult to review a book, particularly a memoir, on this subject without using the same old adjectives: raw, honest, brutal, painful. ‘Coming Undone’ is all of those things, but for all its rawness and honesty about White’s state of mind, there does seem to be a lot held back too, especially about her career and more recent relationships, although I expect that this is mostly due to the necessity of protecting those close to her as well as her own privacy and recovery. Continue reading
I have read two books recently which were top of my wish list for this year’s Booker Prize longlist but sadly didn’t make the cut. The omission of Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell has surprised a lot of people although it has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. O’Farrell’s eighth novel and her first foray into historical fiction is a reimagining of the short life of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet in Warwickshire in the late sixteenth century. The playwright himself only has a background part in this story which is told from the point of view of his wife Agnes (more commonly known as Anne Hathaway, O’Farrell uses the name given in her father’s will) who is the mother of their daughter Susanna followed by twins Hamnet and Judith. The novel focuses on events before and after Hamnet’s early death at the age of 11 in 1596, the true cause of which is unknown but is presented as bubonic plague here. Continue reading
‘One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time’ by Craig Brown is not a biography which claims to reveal vast amounts of new information or insight about the most famous rock band of all time. As with his 2017 biography of Princess Margaret, Ma’am Darling, Brown favours an anecdotal format, tackling the band’s history from John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s early childhoods in 1940s Liverpool to the band’s split in 1970 across 150 short chapters rather than a straightforward linear narrative.
I really enjoyed American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld which is a thinly disguised account of the life of Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush and former First Lady of the United States. I also enjoyed Sittenfeld’s short story ‘The Nominee’ which is included in the UK edition of You Think It, I’ll Say It and is told from the perspective of Hillary Rodham Clinton a few months before the 2016 US presidential election. The premise of her sixth novel ‘Rodham’ – “What if Hillary hadn’t married Bill?” – is one of the most intriguing alternative history scenarios I can think of, so it was the first book I picked up at a physical bookshop after they reopened following lockdown. Continue reading
I read a proof copy of Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes back in April, when it was originally due to be published, but its release date in the UK was pushed back to July due to the pandemic. It tells the story of Clio Campbell, a one-hit-wonder Scottish pop star and political activist who takes her own life just before she turns 51, some three decades after a brief period of fame as the singer of the anti-poll tax anthem ‘Rise Up’.
Clio’s suicide isn’t a spoiler as it is revealed right at the beginning of the book when her body is discovered by her friend Ruth. The story then jumps back and forth in time looking back at Clio’s life with each part retold by a selection of people who knew Clio from very different perspectives. The non-linear story is slightly confusing initially, but I really got into it by the second half as the glimpses of Clio’s life through the eyes of others gradually come together to reveal an affecting character portrait of someone who is very vulnerable in lots of ways behind the outspoken public facade. Continue reading
I found a copy of Treats by Lara Williams in a charity shop shortly after I read the author’s debut novel Supper Club which was published last summer. This very short collection – 21 stories in just over 100 pages – published in 2016 by the now-defunct Freight Books includes more of the same sharply observed prose about modern life, usually from the point of view of millennial age characters. Consequently, Williams is particularly good on the ways in which reality does not always meet expectations, whether it’s graduate job-hunting, relationships after university or creative writing courses. Her stories written in the second person are also very effective – a tricky perspective to get right. Overall, this is a fresh contemporary collection written by a striking new voice. Continue reading
There wasn’t much in the way of comfort reading in my previous blog post, but there is in this one in the form of Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession which has become a word-of-mouth success since it was published by the small independent press Bluemoose Books last year. It is a novel which defies straightforward genre categorisation and tells the story of two quiet friends in their thirties who live seemingly unremarkable lives driven by familiar routine. Leonard is a ghostwriter who has a growing bond with his colleague Shelley while Hungry Paul (his nickname is never explained) lives with his retired parents who are busy with preparations for the wedding of his sister Grace who is frustrated by Hungry Paul’s lack of ambition in life. Hession is particularly skilful at showing how introverts deal with both small-scale events such as the awkwardness of small talk on a first date as well as the bigger picture questions of what they really want from life. Other than the rhythms of everyday scenes, there is little in the way of plot which happily means there is no attempt to improve their characters via a saccharine journey towards them becoming more extroverted. ‘Leonard and Hungry Paul’ is an understated gem of a book. Continue reading
Lots of people might be seeking out comfort reads in these strange times, but it seems that I am not one of them. Anyone with anxieties about hospitals, lockdown or politics probably won’t want to look at the books I have been reading recently which include a novel set in a hospital, diaries written by a prisoner at HMP Wandsworth and a survey of modern UK Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Theresa May. On the plus side, all three books contain a fair amount of dark humour.
Bodies by Jed Mercurio is the 2002 novel which forms the basis of the BBC TV drama of the same name which aired from 2004-06 about whistleblowing in hospitals. Best known for creating the TV series Line of Duty and Bodyguard, Mercurio trained as a junior doctor in Birmingham and his knowledge and experience is evident in a grimly realistic account of frontline healthcare. It is clear that his debut novel was very much an early blueprint for the TV series which, in my view, is far more developed in terms of plot and characterisation, both of which are only lightly sketched in the novel. The TV series is set in an obstetrics and gynaecology department with junior doctor Rob Lake suspecting that consultant Roger Hurley is negligent towards his patients. The novel shares the same central theme of whistleblowing and sees an unnamed newly qualified house officer fresh out of medical school starting work in an accident and emergency department. He makes mistakes resulting in injury and death, as do his colleagues, and the central dilemma is neatly summarised towards the end: “Whether as doctors we make an honest mistake or we commit a huge clanging act of incompetence, the system treats us the same” (p. 329). The unnamed protagonist becomes detached and disillusioned as the boundaries between right and wrong become increasingly blurred. I wasn’t sure the dramatic tension on screen would be as effective in the book but I would say both are equally stressful with plenty of black humour and cynicism thrown in for good measure. ‘Bodies’ is engaging and pacy but definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The Wellcome Book Prize celebrating fiction and non-fiction with a medical theme was “paused” this year and Rebecca has organised an alternative blog tour and public vote of books that would have been eligible. Rebecca, Laura, Paul, Annabel and I have selected a shortlist and you can vote for your favourite at this Twitter poll (see both tweets in the thread for all six books) which is open for a few more hours today. The six books we have chosen are:
Exhalation by Ted Chiang – a collection of sci-fi short stories about artificial intelligence and what it means to be human
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – a non-fiction book exposing gender bias in the modern world
Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson – an essay collection about health, motherhood and grief
The Nocturnal Brain by Guy Leschziner – a non-fiction book about the neuroscience of sleep
The Remarkable Life of the Skin by Monty Lyman – a non-fiction-book about the history and science of skin
War Doctor by David Nott – a memoir by a trauma surgeon who has worked on the frontline of war zones and natural disasters