Review – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

Image result for sapiensWhat I Thought:

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a book with over 500 pages about humankind over the last several million years may be dry and inaccessible. Not so with this book. It is a feast for the brain! Harari has made a very complicated subject easy to understand because of his way of writing, which is engaging and clear.

Sapiens really challenges you and makes you think. For example, Harari provides some intriguing arguments about how we were all duped by the Agricultural Revolution which turned us into farmers when we evolved essentially to be hunter-foragers. We tend to assume that the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward – when actually, according to this book, it was more akin to a great disaster.

Likewise, he analyses the Cognitive Revolution which allowed mankind to develop a consciousness about life and to believe in “phenomena” such as religion and culture. The role of empires and capitalism are thoroughly discussed, and Harari gives some interesting ideas on why it was that a then-comparatively backward Europe came to dominate the globe. This I found fascinating, as we learn that while Europeans were out exploring and conquering, China and India and other great nations sat complacently back, only to find themselves at the bottom of the new pecking order.

Sapiens themselves won out over other varieties of early human (Neanderthals, Denisovans etc)  and evolved into a supreme species by first wreaking havoc on other large species as they spread across the globe and then outthinking others, engaging in shared fictions (religions, limited liability companies etc). This may make us feel powerful or triumphant but, believe me, it makes you ashamed too.

I could not put this book down. It was a refreshing respite from the majority fiction that I usually read and gave my brain a damn good work out too. Trust me when I say you will view yourself and those around you very differently once you’ve finished.


A fascinating, gripping, sometimes jaw-dropping read. It’s accessible without being patronising. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!



Throwback Thursday: The Suspicions of Mr Witcher by Kate Summerscale


Throwback Thursday is a meme created by Renee at It’s Book Talk to share old favourite books rather than just the new shiny ones. This is a great idea to bring back to life some much-loved books. Please feel free to join in.

My pick for this week is The Suspicions of Mr. Witcher by Kate Summerscale which I remember really enjoying when I read it.

9780747596486What I thought:

What a fascinating book this was. I expected to read about the true story of one of the most shocking crimes in 19th century England but I hadn’t bargained for also getting a fantastically written and hugely interesting social commentary of Victorian times and attitudes and behaviours with regards to the emergence of Police Detectives in this country.

Mr. Whicher, the Detective called into this particular case, was one of the first ever Scotland Yard Detectives which came with its own share of suspicion and mistrust. The case in question was the murder of a 3-year-old boy, one of the several children of a well-to-do family in a country house in Wiltshire. In June 1860, the young boy was found to be missing from his cot in the morning and later that day his body was discovered (with his throat slit and a stab wound to his chest) down the servant’s toilet outside in the grounds. It soon became apparent that the perpetrator was one of the people inside the house on that night (which consisted of the boys family, the nursemaid, and housemaid). Whicher was called in to find out which one of the family murdered the three-year-old while the whole of England became obsessed with the drama, writing into the newspapers in their thousands offering their opinion on who committed the crime.

While I found the unravelling of this story fascinating in itself, I was also delighted to see so many references to some great Victorian authors including Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. 1860 was also the year that the first victorian “sensational” novel was published and this appeared to feed the frenzy of the public. This particular case has also been reported to have been the basis for subsequent rather famous novels such as Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood , Collins’ The Moonstone and Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret all of which contain themes from this particular story. Dickens (who was also an aquaintance of Mr Whicher) even wrote letters to Collins offering his theory on what took place that night.

This book is completely non-ficiton to point that only recorded conversations and facts are included (which seems to be the reason there are alot of negative reviews about it – perhaps it seemed too dry for some). And while this is more of a why-dunnit than a who-dunnit , there are still a few surprises along the way that caught me off-guard.


I thoroughtly enjoyed this book; infact I could barely put it down. Summerscale stuck to the facts without trying to sensationalise the story any more than it already was by putting words in peoples mouths and the result was a hugely enjoyable novel about a shocking crime and its repercussions in Victorian society. Highly recommended.



Have you read this? Do you like crime non-fiction and could you recommend any others?

Book Review: Agent Zigzag by Ben Macintyre

The Blurb:

“Eddie Chapman was a charming criminal, a con man, and a philanderer. He was also one of the most remarkable double agents Britain has ever produced. Inside the traitor was a man of loyalty; inside the villain was a hero. The problem for Chapman, his spymasters, and his lovers was to know where one persona ended and the other began. Based on recently declassified files, Agent Zigzag tells Chapman’s full story for the first time. It’s a gripping tale of loyalty, love, treachery, espionage, and the thin and shifting line between fidelity and betrayal.”


What I thought:

This is a fascinating and brilliantly written account of one of Britain’s WW2 Double Agents, Eddie Chapman (alisa Agent Zigzag). Chapman, who started out life in the north east of England, born into a working class family, ran away from school and home and made his way down to the big smoke where he did indeed find his fortune (albeit by criminal means). Marrying one woman, making another pregnant and dating a third, he was evetually captured on the island of Jersey where he spent time in jail before managing to persuade the Germans, who occupied the island during the war, that he could become a huge asset to them for spying on Britain. So how then did he come to spy for Britain also and become one of Britains most valuable weapons against the Germans?

This is a book that makes you feel like you are reading about a Hollywood blockbuster complete with such incredulous details that it couldn’t possibly be true – only it is. Beginning with Chapman being dropped from the sky by a German plane into a field in Norfolk to begin his spying, and working back to his humble beginnings and ultimately on to his double agent days.

You couldn’t make it up.


(This book is from my own personal collection)



Book Review – Fatwa: Living With a Death Threat by Jacky Trevane

The Blurb:

“Jacky was twenty-three when she arrived in Egypt for a holiday with her boyfriend, Dave. Little did she know that an innocent holiday would result in a horror beyond her imagination. Separated from Dave in a bustling street, Jacky fell and twisted her ankle, only to be swept up by a handsome, chivalrous Egyptian called Omar. It was love at first sight. Jacky spent those ten days living with the family – sharing a bed with Omar’s sister – irresistibly attracted to Omar. Swept away by her infatuation she married him and converted to Islam before returning to England to her parents.

Returning to Cairo against her parents’ advice but full of hopes and plans, Jacky’s dream turned into a nightmare. As a blue-eyed blonde she was never going to fit in with life in a poor suburb where the women walked at all times with their heads bowed. During the next eight years she suffered non-stop physical and emotional abuse. She had to escape with her two little girls but how? This tense story never quite ends. Even now, Jacky is living in the shadow of a death threat. A fatwa is issued legitimately under Islamic law to a Muslim woman who leaves her husband. Jacky to protect herself and her daughters minute by minute, day by day, never quite sure what may be around the corner…”

(source: Amazon)


  What I thought:

I found this a really interesting book and certainly one that had me turning those pages; the very nature of the content and the fact it’s a true story is the books forward momentum.

The story begins in 1979 when Jacky goes on holiday to Egypt with her then boyfriend whom she gets separated from when they try to get off a bus in Cairo. Jacky finds herself alone, with a twisted ankle,  in a residential area and is picked up by two young Egyptian men who escort her into the nearest appartment where she is welcomed by the family who nurse her until she can walk again. The appartment is small and Jacky can only communicate with the 15 year old daughter who is learning English at school but she is drawn to Omar, one of the older brothers and even though they can’t speak to each other there is clearly a mutual attraction. Over the next two weeks the family take Jacky on outings around Cairo and further afield and Jacky finds herslef falling in love with the family and also with Omar (they both discover that they can just about communicate to each other in French and their friendship blossoms). Before the holiday is over, Omar has not only proposed to Jacky and talked his family but they have also married.

Over the next eight years in Cairo, the once mild mannered and loving Omar changes into a controlling and angry man who beats his wife on an almost weekly basis and makes her life a living hell. The conditions and squalar that her and her children are forced to live in is a world away from the life she knew back home and rather than upset her parents she writes home about the good life that she is living and how happy she is.

The book opens with Jacky and her two children’s attempted escape back to England, from Cario to the Israeli border. There are so many challenges along the way that even though the escape has been long planned down to the minutest detail, we are still routing for her and wondering if she will actually make it. The answer doesn’t come until the end of the book.

Having lived and worked in the Middle East and spent a lot of time in Egypt, books of this nature do interest me. This is one of the better ones, I feel, as it is written in a way that is accessible to all (it sometimes has the feel of a YA book in its narrative, which I actually think is a good thing -allowing it to be read and understood by different audiences).

The book is the story of what happened to Jacky in the early 80’s and it is possible that things have changed since then (with more access to media from across the world) but even so this is a pretty stark warning to think before you act.

Good book. Recommended.

Edit (20/08/10):

I had a comment left yesterday which I have chosen not to approve for the reasons stated below. The comment came from someone called “Omar” (the name of the husband in the book) and said the following:

“jacky trevane is realy very ill and she realy need adoctors” (I have copied and pasted the exact wording).

I am adding this edit to the bottom of this post for a couple of reasons: 1) If I approve the comment that was made it will then mean that the person who made the comment will be able to post again on my blog and I don’t want that, 2) The comment was made on the wrong review so would make no sense to anyone reading that particular review, 3) I have seen this person (the email was visible for me to see) comment on other sites on the internet, all of which were derogatory towards Jacky Trevane, the author of the book and woman who suffered the horrific abuse at the hands of “Omar”

My opinion on this comment is that this is possibly either the real Omar or someone who knows him (he leaves comments in various places so I can only guess that he has some connection to the family at least as he seems to have a vested interest in tracking down any reviews about the book).


Book Review: Falling Leaves Return to Their Roots by Adeline Yen Mah

What Amazon says: “The story of an unwanted Chinese daughter growing up during the Communist Revolution, blamed for her mother’s death, ignored by her millionaire father and unwanted by her Eurasian step mother. A story of greed, hatred and jealousy; a domestic dramais played against the extraordinary political events in China and Hong Kong. Written with the emotional force of a novel but with a vividness drawn from a personal and political background. FALLING LEAVES has become a surprise bestseller all over the world.”



What I thought: I devour books about China as I am fascinated by the country and its people. I read this one about 5 years ago and I started reading it  fully expecting to be told the story of an unwanted child from a poor, probably rural, family and the hardships they all suffered. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Adeline Yen Mah is brought up in a very wealthy, well respected family in both Shanghai and Taijin, further north. She lived in big houses with servants and a Father who was an extremely clever business man. Sounds ideal, but that couldnt be further from the reality. Adeline was the last born of 5 children and her Mother died 2 weeks after she was born. Adeline has still never seen a photo of her Mother to this day. Not long after her Mothers death, her Father remarried a half Chinese, half French young woman who was to become her step mother and this is where her nightmare stars. The 5 step children are kept in a different part of the house and treated like second class citizens in their own home. Adeline, who was blamed for the death of their mother, is also bullied and beaten by her own siblings who constanly gang up on her. Her Father and Niang, the step mother, make Adeline’s childhood a pure misery.

This story goes from Adeline’s childhood in China to her time as a student in England and then her move to America. All the while she puts up with the awful treatment dished up by her family as sne is so desperate for love and acceptance.

A very sad true story and one that needs to be told.

Waiting on Wednesday

Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran

This week’s “Waiting On” Wednesday pre-publication “can’t-wait-to-read” selection is  Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother: Stories of Loss and Love by Xinran. Release date is 4th February 2010.

Synopsys from Amazon: “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother” is made up of the stories of Chinese mothers whose daughters have been wrenched from them, and also brings us the voices of some adoptive mothers from different parts of the world. These are stories which Xinran could not bring herself to tell previously – because they were too painful and close to home. In the footsteps of Xinran’s “Good Women of China”, this is personal, immediate, full of harrowing, tragic detail but also uplifting, tender moments. Ten chapters, ten women and many stories of heartbreak, including her own: Xinran once again takes us right into the lives of Chinese women – students, successful business women, midwives, peasants, all with memories which have stained their lives. Whether as a consequence of the single-child policy, destructive age-old traditions or hideous economic necessity…these women had to give up their daughters for adoption, others were forced to abandon them – on city streets, outside hospitals, orphanages or on station platforms – and others even had to watch their baby daughters being taken away at birth, and drowned. Here are the ‘extra-birth guerrillas’ who travel the roads and the railways, evading the system, trying to hold onto more than one baby; naive young student girls who have made life-wrecking mistakes; the ‘pebble mother’ on the banks of the Yangzte still looking into the depths for her stolen daughter; peasant women rejected by their families because they can’t produce a male heir; and finally there is Little Snow, the orphaned baby fostered by Xinran but ‘confiscated’ by the state. The book sends a heartrending message from their birth mothers to all those Chinese girls who have been adopted overseas (at the end of 2006 there were over 120,000 registered adoptive families for Chinese orphans, almost all girls, in 27 countries), to show them how things really were for their mothers, and to tell them they were loved and will never be forgotten.

I can’t wait for this book to come out. I am a huge fan of Xinran’s. Her books are both heartbreaking and uplifting  at the same time. I have been fascinated by China and its culture and people for so long and I was lucky enough to go there on holiday in 2004. I have read loads of books by Chinese authors or set in China (I will review these separately soon) but here are some others of Xinran’s that I really enjoyed:

The Good Women of China – “Xinran worked for eight years as a well-known presenter at a Chinese radio station. As a public figure, she received many letters. Most of them were from women. Moved by the stories she was hearing in the letters, she decided to go in search of more of the truths about Chinese women’s lives. What she found was terrible suffering; women who had endured lengthy sexual abuse during the Cultural Revolution, women whose wretched poverty was made more miserable by the dictates of a male-centred society, women who had had their children taken from them or who had lost them in earthquakes and other natural disasters. And, amid all the suffering, she found their capacity to endure and somehow survive.”

Seriously – get your hankies ready for this one. But ultimately feel glad that you read it. It’s an absolutely wonderful book. Xinrans encounters with these incredible women are etched in my heart forever. The girl who kept a fly for a pet and the mothers who endured an earthquake broke my heart. Xinran has brought to life the experiences of many very different women during the chinese cultural revolution with such vibrancy that I can still hear and see them now, years after reading the book. Unputdownable.

Sky Burial – “Sky Burial is the true story of a Chinese woman’s 30-year search through Tibet for news of her lost, presumed dead, husband. Xinran is working as a radio journalist on a women’s programme when a listener calls in to tell her about Shuwen. Xinran travels hundreds of miles across China to interview her and, over two days, Shuwen opens her heart and reveals her tragic, scarcely imaginable life story. Xinran returns to her life and spends the subsequent 10 years trying to find Shuwen again, researching her story and writing this book–a homage to an ordinary woman’s extraordinary life-long search for the truth. The story is a simple one: Shuwen meets her intelligent, idealistic husband-to-be while they are both training to be doctors. After less than 100 days of marriage, Kejun travels to Tibet as a Chinese army doctor and before long, Shuwen is notified that he has died in an “incident”. Shuwen decides to join the army herself, travel to Tibet and find out if he really is dead, and if so, how and why he died. And then, as if travelling to a closed country like Tibet as a young woman in the 1950s is not difficult enough, Shuwen quickly becomes separated from her unit and, close to death herself, is taken in by a family of Tibetan nomads. Her transformation from Chinese doctor to nomadic Buddhist is a long, painful and at many turns, deeply distressing one.”

This is a wonderful book and such an incredible story. I had to remind myself several times that it was true.  

“Waiting On” Wednesday is a weekly event hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine. This event spotlights upcoming releases that we’re eagerly anticipating. Please visit Jill’s blog to find out what other book bloggers are waiting for.

Book Review: Books, Bedbugs and Baguettes by Jeremy Mercer

I was glad to have finished this book; it was really beginning to irritate me! I wanted to like it, I really did – Books, Paris, what’s not to love? What a shame then that what started off as a very promising look into Paris’s most famous of bookstores quickly descended into one of the most self-indulgent memoirs I have ever read.

Jeremy Mercer is a Canadain journalist who after printing the name of someone he promised he wouldn’t name, did a runner one Christmas to Paris and ended up spending the next 9 months of his life living in the famous Shakespeare & Company bookshop. What did interest me was the fact that the shops owner, 86 year old George Whitman (an American) let anyone (usually with the claim of being a struggling writer) sleep in one of the many beds dotted around the shop, indefinitely. The backstory of how George came to be in Paris and how he came to set up the shop in the first place was intruiging (for about 50 pages). What confused me too was the fact that Mercer kept saying what a wonderful person George was, yet the way he portrayed him was as a rude, grumpy old man who perved after young girls 65 years younger than him! He also repeatedly talked about Georges wish for communism and how the world had it all wrong, yet he also seemed proud of the fact that the two of them would go to church sales to buy books for a few pence and then sell them on for a massive profit in his store. Infact, when one of the priests cottoned on to what they were doing, George had a physical fight with the priest over a book. Nice!

I am left feeling deflated and somewhat irritated by this book. Given the subject, I expected to fall in love with Paris over again through the book. While there were frequent references to getting drunk and telling stories by the river Seine, there was never a point where I felt that this was a magical city. The narrative was flat, it didn’t make me feel like I was there (which is always a sign of a well written book, in my opinion), in fact I didn’t even feel like Paris was somewhere I would want to revisit on the back of this book.

A self-indulgent, poorly executed excuse for a mediocre writer to cash in on his time spent living in a famous bookshop.