All That Remains: Sue Black

★★★★

A Life in Death

Death. It isn’t something that any of us like to think about, is it? However, the one certainty of being alive is that, one day, we won’t be. The funny thing is that nowadays, with all the medical and clinical advances of the modern world, we’re more divorced from death than we have ever been; and we fear it more than ever before. I’m in my early thirties and the only dead bodies I’ve ever seen are in museums. I have never been with one of my relatives when they’ve died, nor visited them in a chapel of rest (the result of living a long way away from the rest of my family). And I feel that something is missing, somehow. Not that I want to be ghoulish, but I do want to understand what and how things change at that final threshold. Hence the attraction of this book, written by Sue Black, an anatomist and forensic anthropologist at Dundee University. Black combines dazzling distinctions (she’s a Professor and a Dame) with refreshing down-to-earth Scots candour, and her remarkable book is part memoir, part treatise on death.

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Nefertiti: Joyce Tyldesley

★★★★

Unlocking the Mystery surrounding Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen

Writing about icons is a difficult business. Even biographers of modern stars like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley must wade through a morass of secrets, theories and fantasies. How much more difficult to choose a subject who lived 3,500 years ago, who emerged from nowhere, disappeared back into obscurity, and whose brief, glittering existence has been the subject of fierce iconoclasm! Thanks to the glorious portrait bust in Berlin (see below), Nefertiti is one of the most recognisable figures from Ancient Egypt, but the facts of her life remain tantalisingly elusive. As Joyce Tyldesley teases out the meaning of symbols, inscriptions and sculpted reliefs, Nefertiti’s lost world blossoms into life, in an archaeological story that reads like a detective novel. This is a tale of religious revolution, intrigue, iconoclasm, romance, and mysterious, powerful women. What’s not to like?

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This Is Going To Hurt: Adam Kay

★★★★

Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

In August 2004, bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm, Adam Kay sets off for his first day as a hospital doctor. Six years later, exhausted and traumatised, he leaves the profession. In-between, as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, he delivers over a thousand babies, saves lives, gets soaked in other people’s blood, and removes odd objects from a variety of orifices. This collection of diary entries take us through his career and, as you might imagine, they’re not for the squeamish. They made me wince, and very often I laughed out loud; but they also made me sad. Kay gives a sobering picture of the British National Health Service at a time when its funding is being stealthily shaved away by the government, and the Health Secretary seems to have precious little idea of what doctors are actually doing. These diaries show us what it’s like on ground zero, and it’s not a pretty sight. With humour, sarcasm and compassion, Kay demonstrates how desperately stretched our doctors are. Vital reading, and painfully timely.

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The Madness of Moscow: Cary Johnston

★★

One Man’s Journey of Life and Love in Russia

I was attracted to this book by its promise of revelation. Even in the modern age, Russia is still ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, and its role on the international stage is becoming ever more complex, fascinating and not a little worrying. Recent news has cast it as a country of hackers, oligarchs, corruption and assassins; but how true is all of this? What’s it actually like to be in Russia right now, as a Westerner? What makes the Russians tick? How open is modern Russia to the West and what it stands for? I hoped to find the answers to some of these questions, and hopefully many others, in this book. Unfortunately, though, I was disappointed. Johnston’s account offers little beyond a memoir of partying, vodka-drinking and his eternal and somewhat wearying quest to find his ideal ‘Russian Bride’. For a reporter, it shows a profound lack of curiosity.

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Bite-Sized Memoirs

Bite-Sized Books

Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…

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Bite-Sized Books

Bite-Sized Books

I’ve recently begun exploring the shorter books available for Kindle, some of which are free with a Prime subscription. There are Penguin Specials and Kindle Singles, along with the odd short story which doesn’t fit into my regular Tor.com series. As these books are often so short, averaging around fifty pages, I can easily read them on my commute and they’ve encouraged me to take a punt on unfamiliar authors or subjects. And the results are mixed. Some of these works give a brief, striking perspective on a problem or a theme; others, as with all books, promise much but don’t quite fulfill. Here is the first of what will probably become another series, documenting my travels through the world of these shorter, bite-sized pieces of literature, history and journalism.

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Fanny and Stella: Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

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How Not To Be A Boy: Robert Webb

★★★½

I thought I knew what I was getting with this. The title and cover design channel Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman, which left me squirming in scandalised delight several years ago. And, to some extent, I was right; but Webb’s book takes the celebrity-does-gender-studies memoir to new and much darker regions. Written with fearsome honesty, it’s a ruthless exposé of what British society does to its young men, but also a tale of what it’s like to grow up in a world where you simply don’t fit in. It’s a humorous, frank and thought-provoking counterpart to Moran’s book, a welcome view from the other side of the gender barricade, and yet at the same time a completely different beast. Reading this, I feel (to some degree) as my male friends may have felt on reading Moran. Ahead lies terra incognita. And there may be dragons.

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An Odyssey: Daniel Mendelsohn

★★★★★

A Father, a Son and an Epic

In January 2011, Classics professor Daniel Mendelsohn began to teach an undergraduate seminar on the Odyssey at Bard College in New York. It would be one of the most unusual experiences of his career, for one of his students was his 81-year-old father, Jay Mendelsohn. The tale of the term that followed is distilled into this extraordinary book, part memoir and part literary criticism. An insightful and passionate teacher, Mendelsohn conveys his enthusiasm for Homer’s epic; but he is also a sensitive chronicler of the human soul, and his story spirals out from the seminar to encompass the history of his complex relationship with his prickly, combative father. Written with compassion, it is both intellectually and emotionally brilliant – not to mention hugely moving.

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Blonde: Joyce Carol Oates

★★★★★

You may think I’m getting soft, seeing the second five-star rating in four days, but trust me on this. I’ve been reading this book since November and, at almost a thousand pages, it is a dazzling modern classic: a sprawling, daring, combative act of imagination. First published in 2000, it gains an even more fervent urgency when read in the light of last year’s snowballing Hollywood scandals. Hovering between fiction and non-fiction, it tells the story of the most iconic woman of the 20th century – so recognisable that you only need a wisp of platinum-blonde hair and the feathered end of a dark eyebrow to put a name to the face on the cover. Yet this is not a biography but a creative reconstruction of the life and times of the girl who started life as Norma Jeane Baker and ended up crushed beneath the glittering celebrity of her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe.

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