How to be Champion – by Sarah Millican

21 07 2020

Needed a bit of light relief after my last read! I think I picked this up in The Works for a couple of quid forever ago, and over lockdown she’s been reading through it on her instagram for folk, and I thought I may as well get it read!

The subtitle for the book says it’s an autobiography, but in reality, it’s somewhere halfway between that and a self-help book. Nice short bite size chapters about all sorts of things from her life (chapters range from “Things I’ve been bullied for”, to “My favourite room in the house”, and everything inbetween), the majority ending with “how to be champion” tips. As you’d expect from a comedian, it’s a funny book, but she’s also done amazing work including #joinin and Standard Issue.

Some of my favourite quotes are below:

  • “People who wear glasses are all potential superheroes.”
  • “I have always believed in grassing people up, or as I call it ‘calling people out on bad behaviour.'”
  • “When I was about twelve I asked my parents how old I had to be before I could have a boyfriend. I wasn’t super keen but I like to know the rules so I don’t break them.”
  • “There’s no social mobility at school; if you’re a dowdy nerd, you’re a dowdy nerd for five years.”
  • “There’s nothing worse than an accurate insult.”
  • “The way I see it, I get my car checked regularly, why wouldn’t I do the same for my brain?”
  • “But art in all its forms is subjective. Comedian Chris Addison once said that people are too afraid to say something is not their cup of tea.”
  • “Plus how wonderful it is when seeds you’ve planted start to grow. My friend Juliet said it’s like the slowest-ever firework display.”





Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race – by Reni Eddo-Lodge

12 07 2020

I’m only one of many many people who have bought this book this summer after George Floyd’s death – there were recommendations for it everywhere. The author herself has said she doesn’t “like the idea of personally profiting each time a video of a black person’s death goes viral”, and so asked people to get it from libraries and/or donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund along with their purchase. This spike in purchases made her the first black British person to top the paperback non-fiction chart in the UK, something which she responded to, saying, “The fact that it’s 2020 and I’m the first… is a horrible indictment of the publishing industry”. I’ve become acutely aware over the last month or two of how white-based my British history education was at school, and how pretty much everything we learnt about our history was in a positive light. So this was a book I wanted to pick up.

Eddo-Lodge wrote a blog article in 2014 which had the same title of this book which was published three years later, and the post is included in the book’s preface. The gist of the sentiment behind the title is that most (not all) white people won’t admit there’s a problem, and won’t listen to engage further in that. I’ve noticed that a lot of people will tell you that while we may have a problem with race in this country, America is much worse, and leave it at that. (As an aside, when looking for books to read on this subject, I had to go into the blurbs to work out if the books were USA or UK based as they’ve give very different backgrounds, and for now I’m wanting to learn more about my country!)

The book is divided into seven chapters (and an eighth in editions printed after 2018). Below I’ve put key points and/or thoughts and/or summaries and/or quotes from each chapter. It was a really helpful book if you want to educate yourself more in this area.

  1. Histories
    A broad sweep of black British history (presumably kept high level as there was so much else she wanted to fit into the book!). It goes back as far as the slave trade and as recent as the London riots, and the vote to leave the EU. (Grenfell happened two weeks after the book was published, and is mentioned in the additional eighth chapter). This is what I feel highly uneducated in and want to learn more of (I’ve bought a couple of other books which I imagine may have a similar outline, so if anyone’s read anything that gives a fairly accessible history of Britain and the colonies, I’d be interested in recommendations).
  2. The System
    The chapters starts with the story of Steven Lawrence. Growing up I was aware of the name Steven Lawrence, and had a rough idea that he was a black boy that was killed, but didn’t know much beyond that. We hear here how his family had to battle and battle to get justice, and how it was nineteen years until anyone was convicted for his murder.
    It then looks at the flaws in our systems, for example the discrimination found when applying for jobs. There’s a great example of when the NFL were required to interview at least one Black of Minority Ethnic candidate for any management position, not to recruit, just to interview, and doing that alone meant that panels saw candidates they may not have otherwise considered, and over the next decade, 12 new black coaches were appointed.
    It also covers the failings in the concept of colour-blindness. “White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught […] that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we wish to succeed.”
  3. What is White Privilege?
    She describes White Privilege as an absence of the negative consequences of racism, and explains that what some would describe as reverse-racism is just prejudice. The difference between racism and prejudice is that racism is prejudice plus power. She also speaks to a mixed race woman who was brought up without race ever being discussed and how that affected her.
  4. Fear of a Black Planet
    A lot of this chapter focuses on the fear of immigration. She goes for Nick Griffin, and then, because of British defamation laws, gives him a chance to go back, and so rang him. To quote her introduction to the interview: “Our conversation was so surreal that I publish it here in full.” It’s worth a read.
    Later in the chapter in relation to Katie Hopkins: “Freedom of speech means the freedom for opinions on race to clash. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean the right to say what you want without rebuttal, and racist speech and ideas need to be healthily challenged in the public sphere.”
    She also discusses the tendency towards white heroes and black baddies in film and television, and the uproar that came when in the stage show “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” when the role of Hermione was given to a black actress.
  5. The Feminism Questions
    The focus of this chapter is the overwhelming whiteness of the feminism movement, and the concept of intersectionality which is the crossover of two discriminations, racism and sexism.
  6. Race and Class
    I found this chapter really interesting. Traditionally the UK has had three classes: Upper, Middle (paid monthly and own your home), and Working (paid by the hour and rent your home). But in 2013 the Great British Class survey was commissioned by the BBC and discovered that we now have seven classes (which I put here for just general interest!):

    1. The elite
      Wealthiest and scoring highest economically, socially and culturally
    2. The established middle class
      Next wealthiest and love culture
    3. The technical middle class
      Have money but not very social
    4. New affluent workers
      Middle income, but high on socialising and culture
    5. Traditional working class
      On average, the oldest class
    6. Emergent service workers
      Lower in financial security
    7. The precariat
      The most deprived group

    But the focus of the chapter is on how race and class are intertwined: the proportions of people of colour are much higher at the bottom of this scale than at the top, and therefore more likely to be living in poverty. She discusses how the gentrification of poorer areas in London forces poorer folk out, and because of the proportions, therefore people of colour out. As well as the gender pay gap, there’s also an ethnicity pay gap.
    “There is a suspicion laid at the feet of people who aren’t white who succeed outside of their designated fields for black people, those fields are singing and sport.”

  7. There’s No Justice, There’s Just Us
    This chapter wraps up the original book. White people are wondering when there will be an end point to all this, but she says racism will be with us for a long time, any change is incremental – it’s gonna be a long haul.
    “The perverse thing about our current racial structure is that it has always fallen on the shoulders of those at the bottom to change it. Yet racism is a white problem.”
    “I don’t want white guilt. […] No useful movements for change have ever spring out of fervent guilt. […] Support those in the struggle, rather than spending too much time pitying yourself.”
    “If you are disgusted by what you see, and if you feel the fire coursing through your veins, then it’s up to you. […] It can be as small scale as chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. It can be informal. […] It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you’re doing something.”
  8. Aftermath
    This chapter was added a year or two later, and covers the rise of anti-immigrant politics, and how so many things written about in the previous chapters had progressed since publication, and how the conversation has become so much more centre stage – and this is still long before the events of 2020!





The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – by Suzanne Collins

25 06 2020

When a trilogy has been such a huge hit as The Hunger Games was, both as books and films, then a prequel published a decade later is going to be one of two things – excellent like the originals because the author has waited until they have a good story, or awful and they’ve just written it for the cash. I would say this falls into the former category – I really enjoyed reading this!

It’s set about 65 years before the original books, with President Snow an 18 year old in his final year of school, and following the tenth annual Hunger Games competition. The event is far more primitive than the high tech entertainment we were familiar with in the original books, and is just run in an amphitheatre with a few weapons lying around, though the same revolting basic rule still governs it – last alive wins.

Ten years of the games means it’s ten years since the war, and as yet folk haven’t really got into following the games which were created to remind the Districts who is in charge. The Head Gamesmaker is looking for ways to engage both those in the Capitol and in the Districts more, one way they do this is to have final year students in the Capitol mentor a tribute each, and this is where Snow comes in, mentoring the female tribute from District 12. His family has fallen on hard times since the war, but is trying to keep it quiet for the sake of their position in society, and a good result in the games could get Snow a University scholarship to secure his future.

I won’t give anything away, but even at over 500 pages I flew through it! I have one issue with Snow’s character that I’d like to discuss with anyone who’s read it, but won’t leave spoilers here!! But essentially, if you enjoyed the original books, I think you’ll like this.





The Color Purple – by Alice Walker

14 06 2020

One of the key things I’ve got out of the BLM awareness the last couple of weeks is the need to educate ourselves better. There have been various books recommended, and this was on a fiction list I saw early on (which I can’t find anymore), and it had been sat on my shelf for a long time, and so it seemed a very sensible time to pick it up.

The book is written as letters, initially from the main character, Celie, to God, (though later on this varies a bit and includes letters to and from her sister). Through these letters she essentially tells us the story of her life as a black woman in the American Deep South between the world wars, and of those around her.

It’s not been the easiest book to read, but for a broad variety of reasons:

  • Because she’s talking to God, there’s a lot of assumed knowledge! She talks about people without explaining who they are, and it takes a fair bit of focus to work out what she’s on about at times, particularly at the beginning when everyone she talks about it new to you.
  • No quote marks for dialogue!
  • When Celie is writing (so, for most of the book), it’s written in the dialect she spoke in, the author has referred to this as “black folk language.” It very quickly becomes normal, but was a bit of an adjustment at the start.
  • Time seems to move along without explicitly telling us. By the end of the book I’d say 30-40 years have passed, but it’s not at all easy to see this happen. Someone might refer to how they now have three more children than when you last saw them, or that someone you thought was a kid is nearly as tall as the adults. Hard to keep track of so I just sort of let it happen!
    A quote which just felt so true of life, especially right now: “Time moves slowly, but passes quickly.”
  • Finally, some of the actual content is upsetting, and could be triggering for some. On page one alone, Celie, aged 14 is violently raped by her Pa.





Little Fires Everywhere – by Celeste Ng

2 06 2020

Yes it’s another of those books that’s been everywhere and then adapted for TV. But my theory is, there’s got to be a reason it’s been everywhere and that someone’s put money into making a screen adaptation. It’s gotta be good.

The Richardsons live in an overly planned suburb of picture perfect houses where everyone seems to live picture perfect lives. Mia and her daughter Pearl arrive to rent a small home owned by the Richardsons, having moved house every few months of Pearl’s life and don’t quite fit in with the ideal, but Pearl quickly forms friendships with the Richardson children.

The book starts with a rather dramatic incident, and then flashes back a year to show us how things got to that point. There are back-stories to be discovered, one of which takes a good 50 pages to tell when we finally get to it!

It’s set in the late 90s, which gave some lovely nostalgic moments.

It turns out, yes there is always a reason books go viral (is that a thing? books going viral? oh well, you know what I mean), because it’s a story that grabs you and keeps you interested.





Murder on the Orient Express – by Agatha Christie

25 05 2020

I had always assumed that Agatha Christie books would be a bit stuffy and high brow, and hard work to read. My goodness I was wrong – not that it’s trashy, not at all, but I just read a book in a week, I was completely gripped!

We cover the sleeper carriage of a train which departs from Istanbul and gets stuck in a snowdrift on the same night that someone is killed (this is hardly a spoiler, it’s a murder mystery!), and given that the detective Poirot is already on the train, we work through his investigation, with all it’s twists and turns.

In all honesty, I was completely won over just by the contents page – as a maths and data brain, the structure to this is just beautiful. To some, the idea of this could be off-putting, but don’t worry – even with all it’s organisation, it still flows as one continuous story.

The other thing I really and truly loved about this book was how it helped you keep track of everything going on. There are a lot of characters, a lot of things happening, and so at points in the book we are provided with a labelled map of the train carriage, a timeline of the events we know so far (because Poirot wrote it down to be ‘neat and orderly’, a recap of what we know of all the suspects so far, and a list of questions we still need to answer. I found I had the corner of each of these pages folded down so I could refer back to them easily. It’s just entirely useful!

I hadn’t seen the film, so had no idea what was going to happen, but what was interesting was that while my copy of the book has the film poster as it’s cover (see below), all the characters looked totally different in my head (my Poirot was, of course, David Suchet). I had imDbed to work out who was meant to be who – but that didn’t help at all!

I really want to see the film now!





The Eve Illusion – by Giovanna and Tom Fletcher

19 05 2020

I was a huge fan of Eve of Man when it came out two years ago, but due to the gap between the two books, had forgotten a lot of the plot when it came to this! It turns out, the first couple of chapters help recap what was happening in the last couple of chapters, but given that I couldn’t remember how they got to that point, I decided to do a full re-read of Eve of Man, firstly to get me up to speed properly, and secondly, to just enjoy the full story running together. I haven’t re-read a book in a long time as my “to read” list is always so long, but it was a really nice experience 🙂

A third narrator is added to the story in this book, so as well as Bram and Eve, we now have Michael, who we briefly met in the first book, but we see much more of now. It’s a fun way to tell a story, and fortunately as I binged it, it wasn’t too confusing, but on the occasions I did pick it up mid chapter, I did have to flip back to see who was talking!

Avoiding spoilers (though maybe not of the first book) the story continues as Eve and Bram leave the tower, the only place she’s known, and join the Freevers in their hideout. It was another really gripping read, crazy twists I never saw coming, good people stuff, and I thoroughly enjoyed it! As it’s part of a trilogy, it of course left on a massive cliffhanger again, and I can’t WAIT to see how this is going to resolve!

(That said, I do have a couple of technical questions about one of the plot points, and if anyone else has read it, please let me know so we can discuss!)





The Amber Spyglass – by Philip Pullman

30 04 2020

Last year I read the first two books in this trilogy ready for the TV adaptation that came out, I watched a few episodes but can’t remember if I finished it or not! Either way, I wasn’t in a rush to read the third one. I kinda regret leaving it so long now as even with reading a synopsis of the second book, it was hard to catch up and work out what had happened!

It didn’t help that for a good chunk at the beginning of the book it feels like it jumps around between several groups of people quite quickly, and it was hard to keep track. Not only that but I really couldn’t fathom for a long time who was on what side!

All this said, after my blip with the second book, this was much more engaging and, as per usual, the last 100 pages I read in just a day or two – I’ve spent the whole of this evening since dinner just reading it. It’s so well told, I’m not even going to try and give an overview cos the complexity would make this a very very long post, but it was fascinating trying to work out how all the different parts would resolve.

As I had been slightly forewarned, this book does diss the church more, but the way I see it, it’s a very fictional church, very different to what I know church to be. As I think I said before, at the end of the day, it’s just a story.





The Screwtape Letters – by C.S. Lewis

10 04 2020

Many years ago I got my Grandpa’s very old copy (I think late 1950s, early 1960s?) of this book, which obviously was rather delicate and fragile, so I have kept it safely in a box ever since. A few years later I got the C.S. Lewis Signature Box Set which had a much more robust copy as part of it, and a few years after that, I’ve finally got around to reading it!

The book is a collection of letters from Screwtape (a senior devil) to his nephew Wormwood (a junior devil) – we can clearly tell that there are replies between, but we’re not privy to those. Wormwood has been assigned a ‘patient’ and the letters contain advice, critique and general feedback about how he is doing, what he needs to do differently, and what opportunities to look for.

It’s a confusing read to start with to get your head around the terminology. As a Christian, the phrase “the enemy” would normally mean Satan, and “Our Father”, God, but in this book the roles are of course, reversed! It’s very cleverly written and ends up challenging you in all sorts of areas. There’s a hugely strong warning against luke-warmness, they are excited when the patient is starting to head in the wrong direction, but thinks things are OK so long as he is still a church-goer.

I occasionally found it hard to read, the sentences got quite long in places, and C.S. Lewis is a very clever man, so I think sometimes it was just a bit beyond me, but mostly it’s readable, the content is good and the premise is superb. Definitely worth a read.

At the back is a section which I believe was previously published separately, called “Screwtape proposes a toast”, which is a 20ish page speech that he gives at the graduation at The Tempters Training College for young Devils. It was written maybe 20 years later, and again had good content but was a bit hard going at times – good to see Screwtape in another setting though!

Some of my favourite quotes are below (and remember to bear in mind, these are all written from a devil’s perspective):

  • “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
  • “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle sloe, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
  • “Let him think of [humility] not as a self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind o opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character.”
  • “We have trained them to think of the Future as a promised land with favoured heroes attain – not as something which everyone reaches at the rate of sixty minutes an hour, whatever he does, whoever he is.”
  • “Here were vermin so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment, that it was very hard to raise them to that level of clarity and deliberateness at which mortal sin becomes possible. To raise them just enough; but not that fatal millimetre of ‘too much’. For then, of course, all would possibly have been lost. They might have seen; they might have repented.”





The Rosie Result – by Graeme Simsion

28 03 2020

This is the final book in this ‘Rosie’ trilogy about Don Tillman.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Don is just a really likeable character (possibly moreso because the books are written in the first person from his perspective). By this book he and Rosie have been married for over a decade and have a 10 year old son, Hudson. Don has a lot of things he’s learned about social interaction, rules and patterns to keep an eye out for to understand things he might otherwise struggle with.

Early in the book there’s a suggestion from the school that Hudson may be autistic and that they should look into having him tested. Don is not keen on this, but the comment has also been made about him. He leaves his job to focus on Hudson, to try and achieve various targets (numbered, of course) to help him to fit in.

A lot of the book questions autism stereotypes, as well as educating neurotypicals in ways they can better help those with autism feel comfortable – one being checking if their preference is to be referred to as ‘autistic’ or ‘person with autism’! There’s definitely a message in the book about how we always think of ‘unable to feel empathy’ as a symptom of autism, but rarely do neurotypical people have much empathy for them – definitely a few challenges thrown in, which is helpful.

I’ve made this sound like a heavy book, it’s not. It’s funny, warm, and interesting! There’s also a whole plot with Don opening a bar given his interest and skill in cocktail making – it’s an easy read, just has a good message to share along with it.