2022 Book reviews

Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto

A short story about grief and the magical healing powers of kitchens and also human connection. Not perfect, but exactly what I needed to read at the time. This quote will never leave me. The biggest problem I had was how the character of Eriko was written. She is explicitly a transgender women and written very sympathetically, but some of the language used to describe her makes it seem like her gender is frivolous or not real. There are many times when the main character will say something like "I had to remind myself she was actually a man" etc. Which was just kind of uncomfortable and sad to read. In addition, she also uh, is murdered by a man who is interested in her romantically. This is a very real danger for a lot of trans women, which makes it seem like the author did her research but still, it seemed unnecessarily brutal and upsetting. So yeah, just a warning if you ever read this one.

Z for Zachariah - Robert C. O'Brien

My copy of this was lent to me by my friend, who shares my love of end of the world scenarios and fucked up history. The plot is as follows: Ann is a normal 17 year old, except she might be the last person on earth. She also can't leave the valley she lives in as it offers protection from the irradiated outside world. A couple years ago, the world ended via nuclear war and nerve gas and Ann has to fend for herself. She's pretty good at this all things considered but still, she gets lonely. Hope seems to arrive in the form of Mr Loomis, a man with a radiation proof suit and actual knowledge of science. However, things between them break down when it turns out he may or may not be the worst person ever. This isn't a very high bar, since most of humanity is dead but trust me, he sucks.

Overall, I really enjoyed this and found parts weirdly relatable. Even though I have never been in Ann's situation (obviously) and would probably die immediately, I can relate to having to make split second decisions and regretting it later. Plus, Ann is just very sympathetic. She's not annoyingly dumb and acts really smartly throughout, but her occasional naivety and straight up bad luck stops her from being like, annoyingly perfect. Meanwhile, Mr Loomis is genuinely terrifying. The writing style is very simple but I didn't mind that since it emphasises how young Ann is to be dealing with this shit and makes the occasional horrifying stuff more visceral. Despite everything, it ends on a hopeful note. There were so many ways it could have fallen into the "humans are inherently evil and can't get along" trope, but it didn't and I really liked that.

Posy Simmonds - Paul Gravett

A look through the newspaper cartoonist and children's book author's whole career. The writing was very insightful and didn't actually shy away from critiquing some of her earlier work. Even if you don't read the text, getting this book for the pictures is reason enough. Simmonds' character design skills are off the charts.

Tamara Drewe - Posy Simmonds

A great premise but I feel like it absolutely did not deliver. Gossip newspaper columnist Tamara Drewe gets plastic surgery and returns to her family home, ruining some sad middle class writers' lives in the process. Co-starring teenage stalkers and killer cows. It's also a hybrid newspaper comic and traditional novel, from the perspective of four different characters. Plus, as I said previously, Simmonds knows how to design a good character. So far, it sounds pretty great. Unfortunately, it kind of turns into a half-baked morality tale. Jody (one half of the teenage stalkers) gets killed off anti drug PSA style pretty much out of the blue. Not only did this feel just extremely lame but seemed to blame Jody entirely for how everything turned out.

Don't get me wrong, she did some terrible and very irresponsible stuff (broke into Tamara's house and sent emails pretending to be her so she could meet the musician she had a crush on… yeah) But she was also: literally a child and it's implied that she did these things because of pressure from gossip magazines to act more like an adult. However, there wasn't much critique of that beyond a surface level.

Plus, Casey's (The other half of the teenage stalker duo) perspective was written in Comic Sans. I am the occasional comic sans liker (I mean I set this page in it lmao) but it seemed inappropriate for her character. Plus, the slang they used was very dated. Fellow UK teens, when was the last time you heard someone say "slushy" or "pap"? Never??? Exactly. This took me out of what was otherwise a fairly timeless story. Also the solution to Casey's arc of "Have your toxic best friend die and just find a nice boy to keep you out of trouble" was…. A choice.

Interestingly, Tamara is the titular character, but she actually isn't in it that much? It's more the story of Beth, who is honestly a way more interesting and complex character. Running a writing retreat and pretty much half her husband's career while he has affairs. She's angry about this, but represses it for the sake of everyone around her. She and the teenage stalkers are the people that push the story forward the most. Meanwhile, there's surprisingly little insight into Tamara's state of mind or motivations. She's mostly something for the characters to react to.

Basically: there were good ideas, it just did not land. Despite all of this I actually want to read Gemma Bovery, Simmonds' previous book. It's about the dangers of trying to fix your marriage by moving to France. It seems a bit more morally grey and interesting plus it appeals to my irrational hatred of France. Idk. I'll report back if I ever get around to reading it.

Move Fast and Break Things - Johnathan Taplin

Book about the negative influence that large tech compnaies have on our lives. For every great insight there were equal amounts of boomer takes about how piracy is literally evil and single handedly killing art. Also apparently YouTubers have no talent compared to all my pet 90s male film directors and culture is literally dying. Which... Sure. Ok. tbh I think someone needs to send Taplin a link to an hbomberguy video and he'll probably feel a lot better.

Meanwhile, the parts on libertarianism and how it has permeated silicon valley were fascinating and necessary take-downs. But he also resorted to personal attacks and petty disagreements when a lot of the subjects of this book are like. Committing human rights violations. It was kind of strange. Plus, the stuff about regulation completely went over my head. That was an issue with me 100% though, since I find any talk of economics completely impenetrable regardless of who explains it. Ultimately, I would be interested to read more books on the same topic, just maybe not written by a former film producer with some kind of weird complex about burning man??? Yeah.

Permanent Record - Edward Snowden

I heard Edward Snowden talk on a podcast like, once, and realised I was super interested in hearing more about him. Previously I'd only heard stuff through cultural osmosis and a one-time Wikipedia deep dive. So, shoutout to my local library for having this book. It did not disappoint! He has an amazing way of explaining really complex stuff super simply. A lot of the time, he'll entwine the story of his life with an explanation of a certain computing related concept and I thought this was really engaging.

I also liked how he recognised that after he was exiled, there was no way he could really explain the impact this had on his family. So he didn't! Instead that chapter is made up of diary entries from his girlfriend (and later wife)

These excerpts were particularly gut wrenching. I wish my diary was that well written and cinematic tbh. I ended up being quite disappointed at how short that chapter was, but I got why 100%. Like. Most people aren't going to want to reveal their entire diary just for the sake of their husband's autobiography. Especially if privacy is like his whole thing. But yeah, if his wife ends up writing a book I would totally read it.

Anyway, the main thing I took away is pretty much this: you can achieve pretty much everything that makes you successful on paper, but if your entire life is dedicated to something that is at best unfulfilling and at worst morally wrong, you are literally never going to be happy. Obviously the solution to this for him was #exposing the CIA but I think this is something that most people can try to live by without, you know. Doing all that.

Unfortunately I am going to have to kill him for supporting bitcoin but there's none of that in this book. So.

Vampire Blood Drive - Mira Ong Chua

I love cute girls. I love vampires. Graphic novel with cute gay vampire girls???? I'm fucking sold. As soon as the author announced this obviously I had to pledge on kickstarter. I chose the PDF reward, meaning I got to read it as soon as it came out!

I think I was expecting this book to be a bit more serious than it actually ended up being (it's literally pitched as a comedy idk where I got that from) but that's ok! It's cute and I like how it plays with the common tropes of vampirism.

The plot is pretty loose, it's about a girl named Bunny and her vampire girlfriend Velvet. Each chapter is basically self contained and follows a predicament they find themselves in as a vampire/human couple. Overall this left me reinforcing what I already knew, which is that we need more wlw vampire stories!!

The Princess Diaries - Meg Cabot

This was my favourite book when I was 13/14. For better or worse, when life gets tough I tend to fall back on the media I enjoyed as a kid. So I thought, why not revisit this series?

Here's the plot if you're unfamiliar: Mia Thermopolis is a normal highschooler. Unfortunately, one day it's revealed to her that she is the princess of a small European country. Shenanigans and hilarity ensues as she tries to deal with this information.

Overall, I was so surprised at how enjoyable I found it on reread. Mia's voice is so funny and enjoyable to read. It really does feel like you're reading a human person's diary, rather than it being a kind of tacked on framing device.

The extremely dated references are actually pretty charming (they were dated even when I originally read it lol). However, it also makes me wonder what an updated or more timeless version of the story would be like. Plus, there's some language and ideas that haven't aged that well… Despite this, I kind of want to read the next book in the series since I had such a fun time with this one. I might watch the movie too but idk I'm so attached to the books I might just end up being frustrated the entire time.

Irresistible - Adam Alter

Overall, I loved this book! It's a deep dive into social media addiction and behavioural addiction more broadly. I picked it up at the library and knew I had to get it since it felt like the synopsis tried to attack me personally.

My favourite parts were the first and second parts, where the author goes into the history of science's understanding of addiction and then how this is utilised in the technology of today.

Unfortunately, I think the last part is quite weak. This is probably due to the fact that solving these problems is very difficult, especially when you're coming at it from a personal angle, rather than the fact that a lot of this could be fixed with regulation. However, the conclusion of "actually, there isn't a lot we can do on an individual level to combat social media addiction" is kind of a depressing takeaway, so I'm glad he didn't do that either.

I also wish there was more of a focus on the nitty gritty of how to make an app less addictive in terms of its design, rather than just focusing on De-numerification (removing number metrics i.e likes from posts). Maybe this is just because I like UI and web design tho (can you tell?) and that wouldn't have been as accessible to the wide audience that this book is aiming to target.

Also, the tangents on gamification didn't actually seem that relevant to the point of the book. It seems like he did a bunch of research on it and even after it started to lose focus he didn't want to throw it out. (relatable tbh)

Apart from that, it was very thorough and I like how Alter cited tons of different psychologists, many of whom actually disagree on what behavioural addiction even is. It made me realise that the inner workings of the human mind truly are an enigma, and we are all fucked. But like. At least we know that we're fucked right????

On the Beach - Neville Shute

Literally the worst book to try and read in the current climate (it follows a group of normal people in the aftermath of a nuclear war 😐). Doesn't help that I just didn't get along with the writing style. I would describe this book as long moments of extreme boredom punctuated with short moments of disturbing tragedy. These were extremely well done. The most chilling part for me was when a character ventures into a long irradiated city and sees people sitting at the table. He quickly looks away after he realises “the party had been going on for a year” o_o

Meanwhile, I could have done without the long boring details on naval equipment and the guys just fucking around in a submarine. Also racing cars???? I get that it tried to portray the lives of ordinary people but idk. A lot of it could have been condensed. I was kind of bored by the time I got to the last chapter, but this turned out to be my favourite part. All the characters we've met up until now have to deal with what we've been dreading this entire time (impending death by radiation poisoning). Every person does this differently and it's pretty heartbreaking.

When I finished the book I was in too minds: On one hand I feel like this could have been a novella. On the other, the slow pace makes the sense of dread feel more tangible. So yeah, I'm kind of unsure how I felt about this tbh. I might watch the 1959 movie adaptation since I imagine they leave out the really boring parts. Hopefully.

Radio Silence - Alice Oseman

Oh man, idk if I can adequately sum up the effect this book has on me. Just when I thought I was getting too old for YA, this one really hits me!

The plot follows Frances, who thinks her one talent is being smart. However, she also loves to make fanart for a podcast called Universe City (basically Not Welcome to Nightvale). Partly because of her fanart and partly through complete chance, she happens to befriend the creator of the show, which causes her to reevaltute what she wants to do with her life

That's the basic gist and tbh, it kind of makes it sound like the other billion sad fangirl wish fulfilment YA novels that came out in the 2010s. HOWEVER. it's really not that at all. This book is a rollercoaster and tackles the best and worst parts of online communities in a way that felt so real. I basically felt every emotion reading this and it was great.

My only criticism is that the main "villain" is the story was a little too cartoonishly evil for such a down to earth narrative but on the other hand, this definitely upped the stakes. I also wonder how the book will age. I was initially a bit put off that the depiction of fandom was pretty outdated. However, the book is set in 2013/2014 but published in 2016, so it seems more like a reflection on fandom spaces of that time, rather than trying to seem "current". But I can imagine teens reading it in a couple years and being extremely confused as to what a Tumblr is.

Ultimately though, I think these criticisms are small in the grand scheme of things and didn't inhibit my overall takeaway that this book is amazing. I wish I had read it like 2 years earlier. I think it would have been very comforting to me at a time when I was going through a very similar thing to Frances.

Command and Control - Eric Schlosser

I watched the documentary based on this book recently and really enjoyed it. Obviously, I had to read the book when I found it in the library. It’s the true story of how a Titan II missile threatened to explode in Damascus, Arkansas (then actually did). There was the potential for the warhead to detonate and wipe out the entire state.

The documentary, only being 64 mins long, mostly focuses on the story of how the missile ended up blowing up, occasionally providing additional context where necessary. Meanwhile, the book is extremely thorough and goes through almost the entire history of the cold war, how the Titan II came to exist in the first place, the futile attempts to make nuclear bombs safer to deploy, and lots of dumb military infighting. This is contrasted with a minute by minute account of how the Damascus accident unfolded.

The book obviously doesn't have the visual element that the documentary does so it's harder to keep track of all the names and who's who. This is probably the biggest problem I found with it. There are so many names, especially in the sections about Damascus. My tiny brain couldn't remember everyone, even with the guide at the front. On one hand, Schlosser could have tried to reduce the scope of the storytelling a little here, just to make it a bit more digestible. However, I know that the thesis of the book was to shine a light on the people that often go unmentioned and he didn't want to leave people out. I really respect that point of view, so I can't say I can criticise him for wanting to include everyone.

Apart from that though it was very accessible and easy to understand, but didn't feel dumbed down. It's a pretty long book, but it didn't feel like a slog at all. If you look in the notes and acknowledgement sections, you see that Schlosser did an insane amount of research for this book and it really shows. He also rarely makes judgements, leaving you to draw your own conclusions on everything that happens, which I thought was very effective.

No Place To Go - Lezlie Lowe

This book chronicles how much public toilets suck, and why this might be. It was very easy to read, with a casual tone of voice. There are plenty of toilet adjacent puns to look out for. I can imagine this might put people off but I didn't mind. If you're writing a toilet based book you might as well lean into it.

My actual main criticism is that it felt like the book was repeating the same points over and over again. like. We went to this city to talk to some people. You'll never guess what the quality of their public toilets is! (either comically bad or a runaway success that other places can learn from).

On the other hand, I felt like the repetition was a result of real frustration and years of negative experiences. Both on the part of the author and all the people she talks to in her research. I love when journalists have just had enough, so I appreciated this and understood that this book was a real labour of love.

Plus, the good toilet anecdotes prove that good public toilets are possible and already implemented in many cities around the world. Like, rather than making wild suggestions with no evidence, Lowe could point to concrete positive examples. There was a lot of info packed into this small book but I think the length was fine for me.

How to murder your life - Cat Marnell

I found out about Cat on Pinterest (idk you just go down rabbit holes sometimes, right?) Somehow I ended up at work, sleep deprived and reading her 2011 vice articles and I just found myself totally entranced. Her writing style is extremely casual and funny, sometimes bordering on incomprehensible.

How to murder your life is way more coherent than those articles since it was written in a period of relative stability for her, but it retains her unique perspective. The book chronicles her quest to work in fashion journalism, despite her constantly looming amphetamine addiction. Towards the end, it graduates from "looming" to "completely and utterly controlling her life".

I liked how Cat acknowledged her flaws throughout all of this. She constantly makes mistakes despite the numerous privileges and second chances she was afforded. Her self awareness and lack of self-pity is what makes the book so funny in my opinion. Sometimes her references and humour can seem a bit ridiculous but that’s part of the charm of her writing I guess. Overall, I loved this a lot and finished it incredibly quickly. It was very addicting.