Non-fiction

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Just Kids

The making of two artists

Ever wondered what is was like to be a hip New York City artist in the late 1960s? Well, no need to wonder any longer, Patti Smith will take you right there in this fascinating autobiography. Just Kids is the story of rock and roll chick Patti Smith’s love affair and artistic collaboration with photography’s bad boy Robert Mapplethorpe, from their first chance meeting in a shop to his death-bed only two decades later.

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102 English Things to Do

How to be English

To be enjoyed by English, Brits and non-Brits alike. This amusing collection of observations is part humorous analysis of being English (listen to the shipping forecast, be self-deprecating/ironic/ apologetic); part practical advice (decipher: ‘AONB’, cockney, ‘tea’, ‘be disgusted, Tunbridge wells’, and ‘Lord Lucan’); travel guide (browse Charing Cross road, experience Glynebourne/ Coronation Street/Notting Hill Carnival) and endearingly, proudly English (recite/sing alternatingly Invictus/ Jerusalem/be eccentric). Makes a lovely little gift too.

102 English Things to Do by Alex Quick is published by Old Street Publishing, 226 pages.

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Between the World and Me

An eye-opener

Once in a blue moon you come across a book that changes your perspective. Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ open letter to his 15-year-old son about race relations in America, is such a book. An eye-opening account that – at the risk of sounding patronising – everyone ‘should’ read.

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For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink

A true story of 19th century espionage and theft

This true story has all the hallmarks of a fictional adventure. The backdrop is a fascinating time, not taught in classrooms, when the British were producing opium for sale to the Chinese in order to fund their own addiction: tea. When the opium-tea exchange becomes ever more difficult, the British need to find another option for stability: enter botanist turned spy, Robert Fortune, to steal the plant out of China. Although written for adults, the simple language and linear story-telling makes it suitable for younger readers (13+).

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A Scandalous Life

You couldn't have made it up

This incredible story of aristocratic beauty Lady Jane Digby and her escapades through the higher echelons of British, French, Austrian, German and Greek societies in the 1800s, is one of the more extraordinary biographies I’ve read. Born into wealth and privilege, the charismatic Jane Digby basically slept her way through Europe, starting with an English politician moving on to a German baron, an Austrian Prince, a Greek King and an Albainan General and many more, leaving behind her a trail of ex-husbands and children. Digby ends up in Syria as the wife of a bedouin sheik twenty years her junior. It’s an astounding story which would make a perfect film!

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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Graphic novels - do they work?

I’ve long been intrigued by graphic novels (basically novels told in a comic strip format – although not necessarily funny…). Do they work or are they just for lazy readers? Persepolis is the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi growing up in Iran during the revolution. There’s definitely nothing funny about Satrapi’s claustrophobic, repressed and violent childhood – neighbours telling on each other, the secret police monitoring every move and Iraqi bombs dropping over Teheran.

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Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way

A magnificent backlash against all things fast

Who’d have thought that this book would show up in British bookshops?! I’d heard of it’s huge success in my native Norway and Sweden (200,000+ copies sold), but thought for sure that’s where it would remain. Norwegian Wood is a non-fiction book about chopping firewood. Stacking firewood. Drying firewood. But more importantly, it’s about nature, patience, persistence and appreciating the small things in life. Norwegian Wood is a cross between the Cohen brothers’ film Fargo and the cult book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and predicted by my bookseller to become this year’s surprise Christmas bestseller.

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Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ

Fascinating insight, farts and all

I’ve been driving my family mad with trivia from this adorable best-selling book on the unglamorous subject of the digestive system. Did you know, for instance, that you have up to two kilos worth of micro-organisms living in your gut? Or that saliva is filtered blood? Or that plants make their seeds slightly poisonous in the hope that we won’t eat them. Nerdy stuff, I know, but quite fun nevertheless!

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Blood River – A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Gripping tale about a journalist's trip down the Congo river

Blood River is the extraordinary story of journalist Tim Butcher’s brave journey down the Congo River in the footsteps of legendary H.M. Stanley. It’s the tale of  a country which has regressed, where traces of a civilisation (one built during the brutal Belgian King Leopold’s ‘reign’ of the country): train tracks, decrepit abandoned cities can be found if you scrape the earth. Fear lingers everywhere, to the extent that Congo’s inhabitants rely on the fast growing vegetable cassava as their main food, simply because they might be chased away from their homes any time.  Butcher’s passion for Congo and compassion for the Congolese shines through in his great writing. I read this book many years ago and it has stayed with me ever since and, I fear, is still as relevant today as it was in 2007. Gripping reading!

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Good Morning, Mr Mandela

Endearing memoir that falls short of full potential

An endearing little memoir of a loyal and subservient (“my passion is to serve”) secretary’s years with Nelson Mandela. Her dedication does her credit and it is clear that ‘Madiba’ was very lucky to have found her. This is a subject of great interest and possibilities, both personally and politically, and yet it always felt like an opportunity missed with only superficial glimpses and references. This is not because La Grange chooses to include such details as his constant use of moisturiser – which she does – but because it isn’t very well written. In the hands of another writer, it is a gripping tale of an unwitting Afrikaan racist who is transformed by her exposure to this great and gentle leader. Later, as Mandela becomes infirm, it is a dreadful tale of intrigue and battle for power, of exploitation, even from his own family. Fascinating stuff but poorly told. Despite La Grange being only 44 years old, I often felt I was sitting at the feet of a rambling old dear who may have had a very interesting life but still rather sending me to sleep. If you can get beyond the writing, it is worth reading.