Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: The Haunting of Alma Fielding

Lots of non-fiction reading last week. You’ll hear more about the Kate Andersen Brower anon (or you can find my previous writing about her here), but in the meantime, this week’s BotW is new release (well on October 1) non-fiction that feels really appropriate for the run up to Halloween!

Cover of the Haunting of Alma Fielding

Nandor Fodor is a Jewish-Hungarian refugee in 1930s London. He’s also a ghost hunter and he starts to investigate the case of Alma Fielding, a surburban housewife who says she’s being plagued by a poltergeist. As he starts to investigate as part of his work for the International Institute of Physical Research, the phenomena intensify and he discovers Alma’s complicated and traumatic past. And all this is happening against the backdrop of the rise of Fascim in Europe as well as the obsession/renaissance in spiritualism that happened in the post Great War period.

Now although reads like the plot of a novel, this is actually non-fiction. It’s sometimes hard to believe this while you read it though as Alma continues to manifest material affects after she’s been strip searched and put into a special costume provided by the Institute. But it is and its fascinating. Fodor is rational although he wants to believe, but as he develops doubts about Alma, he handles it in a much more sensitive way than I was expecting. I’ve almost said to much here, but it’s really hard to talk about non-fiction like it’s a novel, when so much of whether it works is about the research and the story and whether it feels satisfying. On that front, I wanted a little bit more closure about Alma and her haunting, but I appreciate that in a work of non-ficiton, you can only work with what the sources tell you.

The juxtaposition of Alma’s story and the wider context of the late 1930s also works really well. If you’ve read Dorothy L Sayers’ Strong Poison* you’ll have encountered the wave of spiritualists of the era – and seen some of their trickery exposed (to the reader at least) by Miss Climpson, but this really sets what Fodor was doing and the organisations that he worked for into the wider context. I was fascinated. If you’re looking for something to read for Halloween, and don’t want fiction, this is really worth a look.

Unlike most of the rest of the world (it seems) I haven’t read the Suspicions of Mr Whicher, but reading this has definitely made me more likely to. My copy of The Haunting of Alma Fielding came from NetGalley in return for an honest review, but it is out now in hardback and should be easily available in bookstores as well as on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading!

*I love it when I get to mention Lord Peter Wimsey, and Strong Poison is one of my favourites, if I haven’t worn you down yet, go and read it.

Book of the Week, new releases, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Money

A lot of non-fiction reading last week all in all, so it’s probably not a surprise that this week’s pick is from the nonfiction list. Just a reminder that the mini-reviews are coming tomorrow – where among the picks is another non-fiction book from last week.

Cover of Money by Jacob Goldstein

So Jacob Goldstein’s Money is exactly what the subtitle says it is – The True Story of a Made-up Thing. It’s a an engaging and easy to understand history of money that goes right from when people stopped bartering and started developing money through to the present day with all the complications that the internet and computers have brought.

Goldstein is one of the hosts of NPR’s Planet Money podcast and has a really conversational style as well as having a knack for explaining complicated ideas in easy to understand language. In this he’s done possibly the best job I’ve found so far of explaining things like bitcoin, blockchain and what exactly happened with the 2008 crash. I mean I came away feeling like I finally understood them at any rate. Be warned though, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find the idea that there will be another big crash or breakdown in the way that we use money just a little bit terrifying and may lead to some googling to work out how safe the money in your bank is. It definitely made me think a lot about electronic banking and the cashless economy. Anyway, If you’re not a person who thinks of themselves as business or money minded, this would be a great primer/introduction for you, or if you’re starting to think about your Christmas present list, this would make a good choice for someone who likes authors like Mary Roach or Bill Bryson.

My copy of Money came from NetGalley, but it’s out now (came out in the UK last week in fact) on Kindle and Kobo and as a hardback. As usual I have no idea whether it’ll be in bookshops, but they should be able to order it for you if they don’t have it in stock. Give them a call/drop in in a safe and responsible way.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Here for It

As I mentioned yesterday, last week I mostly binged on George Bellairs and I’ve talked about him relatively recently. But luckily I also read R Eric Thomas’s book of essays, so I get to tell you about that today!

Cover of Here for It

I think I first came across him as a podcast guest, but in case you haven’t come across him before, R Eric Thomas writes the “Eric Reads the News” column for Elle.com and is Very Funny. This an essay collection but as a whole it also forms a memoir about growing up different and how he found his way and place in life. He was one of the few black pupils at his high school and his Ivy League college. He was brought up attending a conservative black church but he is gay. And it took him a while to figure out what he wanted to do with his life, a period which included going viral on the early internet and not in a good way.

This is basically a funny and joyful journey to self-acceptance. Some of the essays really, really work. Thomas is also a playwright and coupled with his storyteller ability means that he has a knack for picking out themes that run through his life and finding just the right experience to use to tell you about it. And it means the stories build and develop and go somewhere (which is somehow rarer than you expect it to be in essay collections) and make you think.

It made me laugh and it made me think and it was a really great book to read in these strange quarantimes we are living in. I think it’s a special order in the UK – Amazon only has the hardback and no kindle edition right now – so I don’t think you’ll be able to pick it up off a shelf in the bookstore. If you want a taste of R Eric before you buy, here is one of my favourite of his recent columns but he also has a newsletter that you could sign up for and see if you’re interested.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs

Book of the Week: The Chiffon Trenches

So as I said yesterday, it was an awful week. But at least I have a good book to tell you about today. Sometimes it’s the small things isn’t it.

Cover of The Chiffon Trenches

So The Chiffon Trenches is André Leon Talley’s new memoir about his life in the fashion industry. If you’re my age, you may have first seen him  as a judge on America’s Next Top Model around the time they started trying to update the series to make it more high fashion – the era of the Vogue Italia photospread prize, before they started getting people to vote on social media – but he left after the madness that was the All Stars season. Ahem. Anyway, serious fashion fans will actually know him as a long-standing and long-serving member of the Vogue editorial team, where among his roles he was Creative Director, Fashion News Editor and an Editor-at-Large.

This is not his first memoir (although I haven’t read the previous one) but this one deals with his early life, his rise to prominence, his relationship with Anna Wintour and his role in fighting for more diversity and representation in fashion. He is a striking figure – and it’s not just because he’s a 6’7 man who wears couture kaftans – this book will take you on a hell of a journey. He was born in North Carolina in the time of Jim Crow laws. He won a scholarship to Brown University where he did a Masters in French Literature and was intending to be a French teacher. His first mentor was Diana Vreeland. He worked for Andy Warhol at the Factory and at his magazine Interview. He was Anna Wintour’s righthand person through her rise to the top job at Vogue and beyond. And this is his attempt to make sure that his achievements are seen in their own right and his work and not as part of Anna Wintour’s.

It’s fascinating. He’s got all the stories about all the people. If you’ve read about fashion – or about the Studio 54 crowd – it’s all here. Dancing with Diana Ross. Weekend’s at Karl Lagerfelds. European princesses. There’s a best dressed list (male and female) at the back. I didn’t always love his writing style – but I did love the content. It’s a mind-blowing peek at the excesses of the world of high fashion and at the world of Vogue at a time when money was rolling in and anything went. And he’s very keen to set you straight about what the Devil Wears Prada got wrong. If you’ve read Tina Brown’s Vanity Fair Diaries (which I did a couple of years back) there is some neat crossover here. If you’re a serious fashion fan, I don’t know how much it will tell you that you don’t know – except what Talley’s view on everything is and how he wants to position himself. But it’s a lot of fun finding out.

You should be able to get hold of this fairly easily at your book store of choice. It’s a hardback at the moment and it only came out a couple of months back so I would expect it to be on one of the tables or in one of the displays fairly near the front rather than in hidden away in a specialist section. And it is also an audiobook (that he reads himself!) and on Kindle and Kobo.

Happy Reading

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Hello World

I read a lot of stuff last week – ticked a few more states off my 50 States Challenge and read a bunch of romances (with some favourite authors and some new ones), but I do like to mix things up a bit with my Book of the Week picks, so this week I have some popular science for you.

The cover of Hello World

Hello World is an examination of what algorithms are and how they work for (and against) us. Dr Hannah Fry is a mathmatician who specialises in looking at patterns and how they affect human behaviour. She’s also a broadcaster, podcaster and public speaker and her experience in communicating complicated theories over those mediums really shows in this. Now unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ll know that algorithms are a thing. They dictate what you see in your social media feeds, what comes up in search results but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Hello World looks at the role of algorithms in data, healthcare, crime, art and more. If you’ve ever wondered how far off a fully autonomous car is, this will tell you and explain the challenges along the way – for the car and for the drivers. Could algorithms help with solving crime or predicting where crimes might happen. Do they have a role in sentencing or bail decisions fairer? How are they making decisions – and how do they say they’re making decisions?

As usually I’m a little bit behind the times – this came out in 2018 (and was nominated for some of the nonfiction writing prizes) so somethings have moved on a little from my copy (an advance copy for the hardback release that I got given by someone) but I found this absolutely fascinating – sometimes a little scary but also actually quite reassuring as well. I read a fair bit of non fiction but mostly history with occasional bits of science and medical non fiction and I find that books in this end of the spectrum are sometimes too technical or get too bogged down in the details but this absolutely does not do that. I don’t consider myself mathematically or scientifically minded, but this was clear and concise and easy to follow. And I think it’s a great book to read at the moment – we’re all trapped at home and more dependent on technology than ever before and this will give you an insight into some of that and although it might make you rethink some things it won’t but absolutely terrify you and make you want to disconnect everything!

You can get Hello World from all the usual sources. I’ve seen it on the popular science table in the chain bookstores and on the shelves at the supermarket. And of course it’s available in Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook from your audiobook vendor of choice. And if you’ve read this and liked this and want more popular science, can I point you in the direction of Mary Roach and her books.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: First in Line

I didn’t read many books last week, but I did read a lot of pages of various non-fiction books and this was my favourite of them.

Cover of First in Line

First in Line is Kate Andersen Brower’s book about the American vice presidents of the modern era. Part group biography, part examination of the shifting nature of the role, it also takes a look at the early days of the Trump White House and the role of Mike Pence in the administration.  Looking at 13 vice-presidents as well as the responsibilities of the job and how a presidential running mate is selected, Brower has spoken to all six of the living vice presidents – and the insight this gives the book is great. Brower’s writing style is breezy and accessible and the book is peppered with anecdotes and personal stories.

The first six chapters cover the broad strokes of the role – the vetting process, where the VP lives, what the VP does and the basics of the various different types of relationships that there can be between the President and his second in command. The final seven chapters then take a more in depth look at the different partnerships in the second half of the twentieth century – from Eisenhower and Nixon onwards. I don’t think you need much background knowledge going into this – if you know the vague outlines of what happened in America post World War 2 you should be fine.

I found this fascinating. I knew the vague outlines of the process by which the vice president is selected and what the role of the job is, but I hadn’t really realised that the VP’s official residence was such a recent development – or how widely the relationships between the Commander in Chief and his deputy had varied. All the relationships are interesting, but I found the contrast between Nixon and Bush really fascinating – both were Republican vice presidents who became presidents but they had very different experiences.

 

Brower is somewhat of a specialist in writing about the occupants of the White House – her first book (which I haven’t read yet), The Residence, is about the house itself, her second (which I have) was about the modern First Ladies, and her latest book – which came out as an ebook last week and will be out in hardback next month – is called The Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the age of Trump, and looks at what it is like to be one of the living former presidents at the moment. She’s spoken to President Trump as part of the process – she’s written a teaser article in the current edition of Vanity Fair – if you want a taste you can read it here.

And finally – you know how sometimes you read a bit in a book and it really resonates with your experience? Well at the bottom of page 288, Brower says:

Unlike [Dick] Cheney, who had no interest in the presidency, when he was vice president, when Pence goes to the Hill to “touch gloves’ as he says, on a weekly basis, he insists on walking through the Capitol Rotunda so that tourists can get their photos taken with him.

And here is my photo of Mike Pence doing exactly that on the day that I toured the Capitol right at the end of my posting in Washington a couple of years ago.
Vice President Mike PenceIf you want to read First in Line it’s available as an ebook on Kindle or Kobo as well as in hardback. I suspect you might have to order it in though rather than find it in stock when you call your local indie. I’d also recommend First Ladies and having read both (albeit some time apart) I don’t think there was a lot of repetition.

 

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Bad Blood

It was a busy week of reading last week, but one book really stood out – and stood out so much I couldn’t save it for a non-fiction round up post as was my original plan! I have got posts lined up featuring some of the other books I read last week – including a Series I love post about Gail Carriger’s Parasolverse. Anyway, back to this week’s BotW.

Cover of Bad Blood

Bad Blood tells the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos. You’ve probably heard of them – probably because you heard about what happened. Anyway, if you haven’t, here’s the summary. In the mid 2010s Holmes had positioned herself as the female Steve Jobs – a visionary college dropout whose Silicon Valley startup was promising to revolutionise medicine with their new blood testing technique. She raised billions of dollars in venture capital, was on the cover of major magazines, won awards and was invited to events at the White House. And then it all came crashing down – the tech didn’t work and never had. This is the inside story of Theranos, written by the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story after digging into the web of secrecy and deceit and facing up to some very expensive lawyers!

As usual, I’m somewhat behind the curve here – as the book came out in 2018 and I’ve only just got to it, but it absolutely blew my mind last week. Like Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill this is an incredibly readable piece of non-fiction reporting that reads a bit like a thriller – and if it was fiction you would say that it is too far fetched and that maybe the author should have reined it in a bit. But no, it all happened. My only real problem with the book is that it doesn’t really answer the question of *why* Elizabeth Holmes did what she did. It shows you how it was done, and all the ins and outs of that, but it doesn’t offer any explanation about what her plan was – and how she thought it would all play out. Also it had never occurred to me that I could call my self an inventor if I just thought of an idea and then paid people to try and make it work!  I was always an arts person at school rather than a science one, so I can imagine how people like me might have been taken in by her spiel but I was surprised that she was able to get the idea past so many actual science and medical people.

The Theranos saga has also been made into a documentary by HBO, which I haven’t watched yet but really want to. It’s currently available to buy from some streaming services, but I’m hoping it will eventually turn up on a channel on my actual TV. I’ve put the trailer in the bottom for those of you who are interested. If you want to read Bad Blood, it’s available on Kindle and Kobo for £3.99 at the moment, as well as in paperback. The UK edition of the paperback looks to be with a big publisher, so I’d hope it would be easy to obtain from your Independent bookseller of choice.

Happy Reading!

 

 

 

Book of the Week, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Dead Famous

Another week, another Book of the Week post, but first another quick reminder about the Escapist Reading post from the end of last week. Anyway, back to today and taking a break from the romance and crime picks of most of the month (and last month to be fair), this week’s pick is Greg Jenner’s latest book – Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from Bronze Age to Silver Screen. I’ve got a whole stack of history books on the to-read pile and I’m hoping that my head is getting back to a place where I can concentrate on more serious reading now – I love history books, but I’ve had trouble getting my concentration going for them the last couple of months (gee, wonder why) but this broke through.

Hardback copy of Dead Famous

First up, I should say that I went to the same uni as Greg – and what’s more we both “worked” at the same student radio station – and although we weren’t in the same teams or social groups we do follow each other on Twitter.  Anyway since then, Greg has gone on to be a successful public historian – he worked on the Horrible Histories series, hosts a two podcasts for the BBC, You’re Dead To Me (currently on hiatus in the middle of it second series) and the brand new Home School History (which I was listening to part of the time while writing this post) and done all sorts of exciting history stuff including his first book, A Million Years in a Day. Dead Famous came out last month and examines where the modern concept of “celebrity” comes from – how old is it, is it different to fame (or infamy) and how one goes about acquiring it. Over the course of the book he tells the stories of celebrities through history and works out how we got to where we are.

This was one of my hammock reads last week (as the sharp-eyed amongst you may noticed in yesterday’s bonus picture!) and it’s really good. I won’t spoil Greg’s thesis, but it’s well made and with a lot of really great historical figures to illustrate it. Greg has done some serious research into this – 1.4 million words worth on his laptop according to the Acknowledgments – but his writing style makes it so accessible and easy to understand. There are some history books that are scary and hard to read for the layman – sometimes even though they have a funky cover and an enticing blurb. But if you’ve ever heard Greg on radio, podcasts or seen him on TV, he writes exactly as he talks – which makes his books funny and chatty but with impeccable researching to back it up. Greg narrates his own audiobooks and they’re a fabulous listen – that’s how I read Greg’s first book and it was a real treat. As the title suggeests, this stops at 1950 – because Greg says everything after that has already been covered. If you’ve read books on modern celebrity – like Anne Helen Peterson’s Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud – this would make a really good companion piece to examine how we got here.

I pre-ordered my copy (its signed!) from Kirsty at Fox Lane Books – and as you can see from the tweet above she is still taking orders and if you message Greg to tell him that you bought from her, he’ll send you a signed bookplate. It’s also available on Kindle and Kobo – and as an audiobook read by Greg.

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, LGTBQIA+, non-fiction

Book of the Week: Legendary Children

So, anyone else watching the latest series of Drag Race? I could bore you for hours about my latest obsession. And in fact some of my work colleagues have had to put up with me going on at them as I binge my way through the entire back catalogue (sorry guys). So now I’m going to tell you all about Legendary Children – don’t worry, it’s not boring!

So Fabulous Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life does exactly what it says on the tin – it uses Drag Race – and RuPaul as a framing device to examine queer culture over the last one hundred years. Tom Fitzgerald and Lorenzo Marquez are a married couple who run Tom + Lorenzo – which looks at celebrities, fashion and pop culture and they bring their breadth of knowledge to walk you through the lives and struggles of LGBTQI+ people that have got us to a point where a show about Drag Queens competing for a crown has won a bunch of Emmys. It doesn’t shy away from some of the controversies the show (or Ru) has seen, but to be honest, the show is the way in to the wider issues. This is not a history of what happened on Drag Race and if you come to it expecting that, well you should have read the subtitle better. Insert your own Reading is Fundamental joke here, it’ll be better than anything I come up with.

I learnt so much from this book. The authors say they want you to be googling as you go along while you’re reading this – and boy was I. I look forward to seeing what Google ads serves up to me after this – because my search history is a riot. And I had to go googling some stuff beyond the people, because this is a book written for a queer audience, not the those of us who need explanatory commas (which by the way, is exactly as is should be). Fascinating, clever and touching – and you’ll watch Drag Race with new eyes afterwards. And the first episode I watched afterwards had a actual Tom of Finland mention and I felt so in the know you wouldn’t believe it.

I’m off to worry about whether the ‘Rona will be over in time for me to still get to see BenDeLaCreme in London this summer. You got Dela megamix video because it’s (mostly) safe for work. Tom of Finland is… not. Legendary Children is out now in paperback, Kindle and Kobo and as an audiobook  (read by Tom and Lorenzo!).

Happy Reading!

Book of the Week, memoirs

Book of the Week: You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams

I said yesterday that I wasn’t sure if there would be a BotW pick this week, but I had a think and had a write and this is what I came up with. It seemed a shame not to have a book of the week post for the week that included world book week – even if I didn’t have the greatest week and it had an impact on my reading. But You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams perked me up last week when I was feeling a bit blue and stressed so here we have it.

You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams is a coffee table book with a bit of extra. It’s a set of picture essays about moments in the actor and singer’s life. Depending on your age you’ll know Cumming from GoldenEye, the first batch of X-Men movies, The Good Wife or his work on stage – notably as the MC in the revival of Cabaret. If you’re a certain age and British, you may remember him from his sitcom about a minor Scottish airline, The High Life. His life has been eventful and this gives you snapshot glimpses of it all – from his difficult relationship with his dad, to his fragrance range (Including a body wash called Cumming all over) to meeting Liz Taylor and being friends with Liza Minnelli. Cumming has picked his stories carefully and it feels gossipy and revealing as you read it, but is actually very cleverly picking what it’s divulging. He has written a memoir about his relationship with his father which was painful and difficult and this is not that and I don’t think covers much of the same material at all – it’s more about the different facets of Cumming’s life and the pictures he’s taken of it.

I bought this when I saw Cumming in concert in London a few years ago*, which is why the book is signed and it had a fairly similar mix of stories to that gig – which was lovely and brought back the memories of that night in the theatre. I’m not ruling out reading Cumming’s memoir about discovering his real family history when he went on Who Do You Think You Are (even after hearing the story from the video below) but that wasn’t what I needed last week – and this was.

This one might be a little tougher to get hold of than some of my other picks because it is a couple of years old now, but Amazon tells me that it has hardcover copies in stock. It’s also available in Kindle and as an audiobook, but the photos are such an integral part of this that I can’t imagine that it would work anywhere near as well without them alongside at the least.

Happy Reading!

*I found the ticket for that concert tucked in this book and was shocked, shocked I tell you, to discover how long this has been on the to-read pile.