Category: non-fiction

Review: ‘Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives’ by Anna Kessel

Review: ‘Eat Sweat Play: How Sport Can Change Our Lives’ by Anna Kessel

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sport’s for everyone . . . isn’t it?

Society has led us to believe that women and sport don’t mix. But why? What happens to the young girls who dare to climb trees and cartwheel across playgrounds?

In her exploration of major taboos, from sex to the gender pay gap, sports journalist Anna Kessel discovers how sport and exercise should play an integral role in every sphere of our modern lives.

Covering a fascinating range of women, from Sporty Spice to mums who box and breastfeed, Eat Sweat Play reveals how women are finally reclaiming sport, and by extension their own bodies, for themselves – and how you can too.

I’ve had a bit of a mixed relationship with sport over the years.  I wasn’t a super sporty child and I hated PE lessons at school.  Be it cross country running around a field in gym knickers in the freezing cold in winter or being forced to attempt high jump while 30 of your peers look on, there was nothing about it that inclined me towards engaging.  Fast forward a few years and I love to exercise.  I actually enjoy exercise, and that is something that 14 year old me would never have imagined saying. I imagine that anybody who ever tried to teach me a sport would imagine it even less. What’s unnerving is how accurately Kessel writes about women just like me, women who aren’t “just not sporty” but who aren’t engaged in fitness and activity in the right way early in life.

…if you fail a woman at any stage of her doing sport or do exercise, she’ll rarely have the confidence to go back and try again

Maybe sport is different for young people now but would it have killed the PE teachers of my youth to let us teenage girls know that sport isn’t all hand-eye coordination, public embarrassment or being the biggest, fastest or strongest? Lining up groups of young people and having others pick their favourites for teams is awful for most; lining up groups of young people for a bit of zumba is fun.  Teaching girls about calories and exercise is valuable of course but perhaps less valuable than engendering in women a love of being active, of not caring how you look and just having fun. I personally hate playing team sports and I hate anything competitive (the pressure!). I do, however, love running by myself, listening to music and feeling like I could do anything. I love challenging myself at progressively harder gym classes because they clear my head like nothing else. Like Kessel, I’m convinced now more than ever that PE lessons at school should be about helping everybody find something that they enjoy and giving them time to do it. She’s a wonderfully relatable writer and her chatty tone is perfect for this type of book because it stops it sounding preachy.

There were sections of Eat Sweat Play that were less relevant to me personally, dealing with sport during pregnancy and getting back into exercise when you have a young child for example, but even those were engaging and there were some really interesting points about what we’re taught to think about the female body that maybe I’ll revisit in the future when they are more relevant. If I have a gripe, it’s that the writing started to feel a little repetitive towards the end. There are so many examples of women who have braved events they were banned from just to prove that women could do what men could or women who are continuing to defy social conventions to fight for girls’ rights to just run and they’re fabulous to read about but in the end, they’re included to illustrate the same point.  It’s a point that I wholeheartedly agree with but the same one nonetheless.  I found that not trying to read it cover to cover helped.  It took me four months to read Eat Sweat Play but that way meant that I could really enjoy it.

Whenever I picked up Eat Sweat Play, it made me want to get out and do something active. It’s inspiring and I genuinely think that women who think they hate exercise could read this and be motivated to try something that they’ve always wanted to give a go but haven’t for whatever reason. I felt like such a wally the first time I went for a run out in public but having done it anyway and survived gives me confidence in myself that I carry into classes that I’ve never tried before, to just say to an instructor “I’ve never done this before” and trust them not to laugh me out of the room.  Kessel acknowledges that modern women are short of time or labouring under a feeling that they must always look presentable and isn’t at all patronising or trying to make you feel guilty if you don’t fancy exercise all of the time. She’s just trying to empower those who do want to give something a try, be that learning to run, box or just do a forward roll, and I love her for it.

It’s time for women the world over to reconnect with our bodies. To reclaim them from a life of obsessing about thigh gaps and bingo wings. To remember that our bodies are there to have fun with, to enjoy. And to make sure that we learn these lessons before it’s too late, before we are physically infirm and looking back over our lives wishing we’d tried wild swimming, or netball, or trampolining, wondering what it might have been like to body slam someone on a rugby pitch, or learn how to throw a real punch. What are we waiting for?

Overall:  The older I get, the more I find myself identifying as a feminist. Eat Sweat Play is such a timely book, released at a time when I do really feel as though there’s a shift in the way women see themselves. Kessel acknowledges that it’s ok to actually like make-up and wearing dresses and that doing that doesn’t make you any less of a feminist; it’s about choice. She has written a book that absolutely sums up how I feel about so many things and I adored it.


Pictured edition published by Pan Macmillan in July 2017

Date finished: 15 March 2018

Source: Bought

Read with: Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley


Review: ‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary M. Talbot

Review: ‘Sally Heathcote: Suffragette’ by Mary M. Talbot

Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is a gripping inside story of the campaign for votes for women. A tale of loyalty, love and courage, set against a vividly realised backdrop of Edwardian Britain, it follows the fortunes of a maid-of-all-work swept up in the feminist militancy of the era. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette is another stunning collaboration from Costa Award winners, Mary and Bryan Talbot. Teamed up with acclaimed illustrator Kate Charlesworth, Sally Heathcote’s lavish pages bring history to life.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I went to an all girls’ secondary school as a teenager and we studied a social/economic history syllabus instead of what I think is a more common world history syllabus, with a whole term spent focussing on the history of the Suffragettes. In theory, I really ought to remember a reasonable amount about women’s efforts to obtain the vote and yet I don’t. I remember some key dates/facts and could probably get by in a light conversation on the topic (not that there’s likely to ever be such a thing but still) but by no means as much as I’d like to. I’ve been trying a little bit over recent months to get into non-fiction and I have a few books that I’m really looking forward to but I wouldn’t back my fledgling interest to survive a bout with a detailed book on women’s suffrage. Enter Sally Heathcote: Suffragette, a part fiction, part non-fiction graphic novel story of a young woman who was involved in various organisations’ efforts to secure votes for women.

Sally Heathcote is a fictional suffragette, who at the opening of the novel is a maid in service who ends up working for the Pankhurst family. As historical events unfold, Sally conveniently manages to continue to find herself at the heart of the action. While there wasn’t specifically a Sally Heathcote who travelled to London to work for the Women’s Social and Political Union or other political pressure groups, there were undoubtedly numerous women who did flock to the organisations to contribute their efforts to the groups’ work, challenging their previous role in society and Sally’s actions all feel entirely consistent with a young woman of her position at that time and not a strained storytelling device.

The book is only a couple of hundred pages but it manages to neatly cover all of the main events of the suffrage movement and show how women might have responded at the time (the death of Emily Davison is particularly thoughtfully covered). What Sally Heathcote: Suffragette does extremely well is different groups that were all trying to secure women the right to vote. Alongside the fairly militant WSPU (the group led by the Pankhursts and perhaps the most famous), there were other, arguably more peaceful organisations without subtly different aims, all of them often lumped together as “the Suffragettes”. Talbot does a brilliant job of introducing these groups by portraying Sally as a conflicted suffragette, committed to securing women’s rights but not sure about the best methods and engaging with efforts as best she can. As an introduction to the history and political climate of the era, it’s really solid.

The book is also unflinching about WSPU members’ treatment in prison during their hunger strikes following arrest and the forced feeding that women were subjected to and the horror of the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’, which saw women released from prison when they were deemed in danger of becoming a martyr for the cause and re-arrested when they were thought to be healthy enough to ultimately serve their full sentence. I think all too often we refer to women ‘fighting for the right to vote’ without remembering that women suffered for it and the images and the telling of that in this account are raw and heartbreaking and incredibly powerful.

Speaking of, the illustrations are mostly in grey scale, with some colours used occasionally for emphasis (mostly organisations’ colours, including the now iconic white, green and purple, and Sally’s ginger hair). It’s a style that I’m always a fan of and one that works well here. The palette imbues the narrative with the gravitas and…weight that it deserves and avoids the graphic novel medium making it seem a little frivolous. It can make the other female characters a little difficult to identify by image alone but mostly they’re identified by name and it doesn’t become too much of a problem.

I don’t really want to spoil the book so I’ll just say that the last few panels are really impactive. They’re quiet compared to the drama of the main chapters but the stark contrast between the struggles that are so vividly portrayed in the rest of the pages and the last few statement that Talbot makes is stunning and absolutely perfectly judged.

Overall: I was a fan of Sally Heathcote: Suffragette before I got to the last few pages and those moments really made it something memorable. Books like this should be given to young women as an accessible account of what women (and men!) went through to secure the rights for women to vote, especially in the year that the country will commemorate centenary of the first British women to get the vote. Highly recommended if you want a either an introduction to or a refresher on a still very relevant and fairly recent period of UK history.


Pictured Edition published by Jonathan Cape (an imprint of Random House) in May 2014

Date finished: 07 January 2018

Source: Library

Review: ‘Into the Wild’ by Jon Krakauer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself.  He would give himself a new name, Alexander Supertramp, and, unencumbered by money and belongings, he would be free to wallow in the raw, unfiltered experiences that nature presented. Craving a blank spot on the map, McCandless simply threw the maps away

Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. How McCandless came to die is the unforgettable story of Into the Wild.


When I first gave Into the Wild five stars, it was with a wavering finger and a little doubt. The book really touched me and I loved every minute that I was listening to it but, thought I, was that because Christoper McCandless’ story was so moving or was it the book? Could I give a book 5 stars because I found its non-fiction subject matter affected me?  It took me a little while to realise that the question is stupid.  It wasn’t only McCandless’ story that had been so moving but Krakauer’s telling of it.  
I understand that the story wasn’t particularly positively reported in the American press, not least because McCandless’ fatal journey into the Alaskan wilderness was seen as reckless and juvenile and that, when it came down to it, he was a victim of his own stupidity and nothing else.  When Krakauer originally published an article about McCandless in 1993, his empathy was derided.  A few, however, reached out to Krakauer and provided letters and postcards and memories of McCandless/’Alexander Supertramp’.  
Those letters and the stories of the people who knew McCandless are meted out perfectly.  Alongside the pieced together narrative of McCandless’ life are stories of other young people who for their own reasons took off into the wilderness, never to be heard from again, and Krakauer’s own recollections of mountaineering.  The effect is really quite something.  I listened to most of it while training for a half marathon and all the talk of nature and freedom and outdoor living fit perfectly at a time when I needed all the inspiration I could get to keep pounding the pavements at less than sociable times of the day.

Into the Wild actually made me want to do more than that – Krakauer’s sympathetic chronicle of McCandless’ ambitions and dreams made me want to live more cleanly and more freely and with less of a focus on Things…

The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty” [Taken from a letter Christopher McCandless wrote to a friend]

Ok, so I might not exactly be camping in the wilderness, spurning all of my worldly possessions and retreating from my family but this book made me think that there’s some beauty in the simplicity of the aspiration to just be a little braver and a little less shackled by routine.

Five stars it is.

Overall:  I don’t read a lot of non-fiction so the fact that I’ve given this 5 stars hopefully says more than any snappy sentence I could come up with here.  In case it doesn’t:  Into the Wild is a moving account of a young man who wanted to live differently, and very nearly managed to prove that it was possible to branch out and live on your own terms with nothing but a backpack full of Tolstoy and rice.  If you’re looking for something that might give you a new perspective and a fresh way of approaching things (or even just something that you can have a good cry over), Into the Wild is for you.  
Date finished: August 2015
Format:  Audiobook
Source:  Borrowed from my local library
Genre: Non-fiction; Biography
Pictured Edition Published:  in January 1997 by Anchor

Review: ‘Relish: My Life in the Kitchen” by Lucy Knisley

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lucy Knisley loves food. The daughter of a chef and a gourmet, this talented young cartoonist comes by her obsession honestly. In her forthright, thoughtful, and funny memoir, Lucy traces key episodes in her life thus far, framed by what she was eating at the time and lessons learned about food, cooking, and life. Each chapter is bookended with an illustrated recipe—many of them treasured family dishes, and a few of them Lucy’s original inventions.

A welcome read for anyone who ever felt more passion for a sandwich than is strictly speaking proper, Relish is a book for our time: it invites the reader to celebrate food as a connection to our bodies and a connection to the earth, rather than an enemy, a compulsion, or a consumer product.
If you’ve hung around here for long enough, you’ll know that I’m a massive food geek.  I’ve never quite worked out how to work food in with the book side of things here but if I’m not reading, I’m almost certainly either cooking, thinking about cooking or eating.  One of the main reasons I got into running is that I’m super into food and see almost every occasion as an excuse to scoff but still want to be able to fit into my clothes.  I’m a “foodie”, I guess you could say.  What I am not is well-versed in the world of graphic novels.  
Before this year, I’d never read a graphic novel as an adult.  Maybe not even as a teenager.  Things might have stayed that way had it not been for Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (which we’re now going to refer to as Relish because I’m lazy),  And Hanna, who bought it for me for Christmas.  It wasn’t that I had anything against graphic novels, it’s just that I didn’t really know where to start or whether I’d like them.  It turns out that I do.  Or at least, I liked this one.
The blurb makes it seem a bit like it will be a bit pretentious and ramble on about how we should have a deep connection to our food.  It’s really not.  Relish is adorable.  Lucy Knisley’s love of food is infectious and reading about her experiences and memories felt comforting, somehow.  Maybe because the illustrations make the anecdotes seem more personal than they would if this was a “normal” memoir.  The drawings have an easy and relaxed feeling about them and the writing is warm and funny.  Relish covers Knisley’s relationship with her food-loving parents, pivotal moments in her formative food years and various encounters of the scrumptious kind.  It’s a simple theme but one that I just loved.  I whipped through it in a couple of sittings and could have kept on reading for hours.
Tucked among the tales of perfect croissants and delicious cheeses are recipes and cooking tips.  How to cook mushrooms without them becoming soggy and disgusting, for example, and how to make an indulgent spaghetti carbonara.  I haven’t actually tried any of the recipes so I can’t say whether Knisley’s cookie recipe really will give you the perfect treat but I loved the way that they were written.  The tone is light and chatty and feels a lot like sharing recipes with a fellow food lover.  I can’t wait to get hold of some of Knisley’s travel memoirs and dig into some more of her culinary anecdotes.
Overall:  A perfect segue into the world of graphic novels if you’re in any way into food.  If you’re already a graphic novel aficionado, I don’t know what to tell you other than Relish is a cute, quick read that will leave you hankering for a plate of freshly baked cookies.

Date finished: 20 January 2015
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Gifted from lovely, lovely Hanna
Genre: Graphic novel; non-fiction
Pictured Edition Published:  in April 2013 by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group

Review: ‘Running Like a Girl’ by Alexandra Heminsley

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Alexandra had high hopes: the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel, the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms and bored of yoga, she decided to run. 

Her first attempt did not end well. Six years later, she has run five marathons in two continents. But, as her dad says, you run with your head as much as with your legs. So, while this is a book about running, it’s not just about running. You could say it’s about ambition (yes, getting out of bed on a rainy Sunday morning counts), relationships (including talking to the intimidating staff in the trainer shop), as well as your body (your boobs don’t have to wobble when you run). But it’s also about realising that you can do more than you ever thought possible. 

Very funny, very honest, and very emotional, whether you’re in serious training or thinking about running for the bus, this is a book for anyone who after wine and crisps for supper a few too many times thinks they might…just might…like to run like a girl.


“Lacing up and leaving the house is the hardest moment of any run. You never regret it once you are en route”

If you spend longer than half an hour in my company these days, the odds are excellent that I will mention running at some point. I’m also likely to mention that I’m loving it and that I whole-heartedly believe that exercise is the only way I’m avoiding becoming all balled up with stress as a result of the 10 hour plus days I usually work..  The thing I probably won’t tell you (even though I really should) is that Running Like A Girl is in no small part responsible for getting me back to pounding the pavement with such enthusiasm.  Thank goodness Ellie Lit Nerd recommended it!

On the face of it, Running Like a Girl is “just” a running memoir; a book full of tales of the trials and tribulations faced by one woman as she starts out running, completes her first marathon and battles down a few more milestone runs.  Two things make it different.  The first is that Alexandra Heminsley isn’t a professional runner recycling inspirational but slightly unrealistic material about how there’s a runner inside all of us and we just need to focus on a goal and write down a plan and blah blah blah; she started out running as an adult with no experience and recounts what she’s been through in a self-deprecating (and very funny) manner.  When I read it, I was still bearing the vestiges of an injury and I was dying to put my trainers back on and get running.

One of the things I love the most about Running Like a Girl is that it neither makes light of running nor makes it seem like something only “real” athletes can do.  Running is completely accessible and can feel liberating; a good run on a bright day (with a light breeze, ideally) makes me feel proud and healthy and on top of the world.  For every one of those runs, though, there are probably two hard ones where I’m tired or haven’t drunk enough water or it’s raining in my face or it’s super hot and I’m sweating all over the place (the latter being less frequent in Yorkshire but still…) and keeping running is hard.  I love that Heminsley admits that running isn’t always a glorious activity that has us all bounding around happily with neat hair and pleasantly rosy cheeks and that not everybody is a natural runner (if there even is such a thing) but that, regardless of how much of a hot mess we might look while we’re mid-run, it’s totally worth it.  Because even with the stories of the falling off toe nails and the inconvenient calls of nature, Running Like a Girl makes running sound like the best thing you could ever do with your spare time.   

It’s perfect reading for anybody that is either starting out running, wants to start out running, is getting back into running or has even just lost the love a little bit.  There’s just so much to identify with if that’s the angle you’re reading from – like the nerves of the early runs and the utter certainty that people are looking at you and noticing how much of a plonker you look .  Every question you never wanted to ask but are the things that you really want to know.  I, for example, have quite long hair that will not sit neatly in a bun or a plait while I run and will whip me in the face with unnecessary vigour if it’s in a ponytail – enter Alexandra Heminsley and the plait that has a bobble at the top and bottom.  Genius.

Amongst the humour of the early chapters are more intense ones of Heminsley’s marathon experiences.  The chapter about her first marathon actually made me cry.  I couldn’t even really tell you why except that it so perfectly evoked the harrowing experience that I felt completely involved.  It’s funny, it’s completely charming and has chapters like the one covering the “myths” about running that I’ll dip back into again and again, I expect.  I hear a lot of things like, “Oh I don’t run because it’s bad for your knees/shins/hips/other random joint or bone”.  I don’t know the science (although I do need to bone up (haha) on it so that I can start to refute these comments properly) but I do know that I’ve been lucky enough not to suffer an injury while running that was attributable to the actual act of running (I do have a teeny scar on my right hip from where I clipped an iPod mini onto my leggings during a half marathon that somehow managed to get stuck to my skin and was pulled off over-enthusiastically in a post-race haze but that was really down to my own stupidity and running can’t be blamed…).  It’s good to know that I haven’t been deluding myself and engaging in an activity that is trying to kill me.

So it’s fun to read, it’s inspiring and it’s practical.  What more could you possibly want?!

Overall:  What I’m saying (obviously) is that if you’ve ever even half-fancied running, I honestly can’t recommend Running Like a Girl enough.  Heck, read it even if you despise running with every fibre of your being but want to achieve something that requires commitment and hard work and that others might be sceptical about but that you believe that you can do.  Read it and get the kick up the bum you never knew you needed.

Please don’t blame me when you’ve read it all in one go and signed up for a marathon, though.

Date finished: 30 March 2014
Format: Paperback
Source: Bought
Genre: Non-fiction; sports
Pictured edition published: by Windmill Books in January 2014

Review: ‘How To Be A Woman’ by Caitlin Moran

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven’t been burned as witches since 1727, life isn’t exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them?
Caitlin Moran interweaves provocative observations on women’s lives with laugh-out-loud funny scenes from her own, from the riot of adolescence to her development as a writer, wife, and mother. With rapier wit, Moran slices right to the truth—whether it’s about the workplace, strip clubs, love, fat, abortion, popular entertainment, or children—to jump-start a new conversation about feminism. With humor, insight, and verve, How To Be a Woman lays bare the reasons female rights and empowerment are essential issues not only for women today but also for society itself.


“We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 per cent of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42 per cent of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’, by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?” [Page 80]

Between the ages of 11 and 15, I went to an all girls’ comprehensive school. Just before I started, the headteacher gave a wonderful speech (that I under-appreciated at the time) about how the point our whole secondary education was to help us to achieve whatever we wanted to achieve. Not to enable us all to be scientists or world leaders or doctors but to be whatever we wanted. I’ve never once been told that I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be a lawyer. I’ve never been given a reason to believe that my gender would in any way hold me back. Maybe I take that for granted. I suppose that what I mean is that I’ve never really been given a reason to jump and shout about BEING A FEMINIST. How To Be A Woman reminded me that I am, without a shadow of a doubt a feminist.
Now you might have read that paragraph and thought, “Ugh – what do I want with a feminist manifesto?”. Hang on for just a couple more paragraphs. Because what really does need emphasising is that How To Be A Woman is bloody funny. Genuinely, giggle-inducingly funny as opposed to wry-grin-inducingly funny. Caitlin Moran takes everything that is unglamorous and undignified about being a teenage girl and a woman and makes it hilarious. It isn’t always pretty (because what is?) but Moran just has this unflinching way of looking at and talking about…well, life, that I could read all day. Would read all day, if she didn’t write for The Times, that is.

I don’t read a lot of autobiographies because there are very few people that I want to read an entire book about (and also because, as it turns out, they are HARD to write about). In a few ways, How To Be A Woman is a bit like the autobiographies I tend to stay away from. There were some chapters that were consistently brilliant but there were some where I was less engaged. Mostly, though, they were of the brilliant variety. Want proof that you aren’t the only person that doesn’t think smaller underwear is better? You got it. Want to show your beloved that you will always need just ONE MORE designer handbag? Wave a copy of this book under his nose. Most importantly, though, if you want to remind yourself about why having two of those super lovely and attractive X chromosomes is terrific, get yourself to a bookshop right away.
For all that the anecdotes about the traumas of living with a large family and the excitement of getting hold of the elusive teenage library card were so much fun, it was the look at feminism that I took more from. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to head out there and start demonstrating or anything but it’s nice to know that just because I may *sometimes* say slightly mean things about other ladies, I don’t have to hand in my feminist card at the door:

“When people suggest that what, all along, has been holding women back is other women, bitching about each other, I think they’re severely overestimating the power of a catty zinger during a fag break. We have to remember that snidely saying “Her hair’s a bit limp on top” isn’t what’s keeping womankind from closing the 30 per cent pay gap and a place on the board of directors. I think that’s more likely to be down to tens of thousands of years on ingrained social, political and economic misogyny and the patriarchy, tbh. That’s just got slightly more leverage than a gag about someone’s bad trousers” [Page 86]

So that’s it: you’ll get a Message and you’ll get some laughs. Win-win, I say!

Overall: About half way through reading How To Be A Woman, I very high proportion of my girlfriends to tell them to stop what they were doing and go out and buy it for themselves. You might not be a better woman for it but you will be a much more amused one. Do I recommend it for men? I’m not sure. Probably only the less…squeamish ones. 


Date finished: 13 April 2013
Format: Paperback
Source: Sent to me by the EVER TERRIFIC Hanna – THANK YOU!!
Genre: Non-fiction; autobiography
Pictured Edition Published: by Ebury Press in June 2011

Review: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

Rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Everyone has heard of Reinhard Heydrich, “the Butcher of Prague.” And most have heard stories of his spectacular assassination at the hands of two Czechoslovakian partisans. But who exactly were the forgotten heroes who killed one of history’s most notorious men? 

In Laurent Binet’s captivating debut novel, HHhH (Himmlers Hirn heiBt Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich), we follow the lives of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš, the Slovak and the Czech responsible for Heydrich’s death. From their heroic escape from Nazi-occupied Prague to their recruitment by the British secret services; from their meticulous preparation and training to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone; from their stealth attack on Heydrich’s car to their own brutal deaths in the basement of a Prague church, Binet narrates the compelling story of these two incredible men, rescuing their heroic acts from obscurity.


“When I watch the news, when I read the paper, when I meet people, when I hang out with friends and acquaintances, when I see how each of us struggles, as best we can, through life’s absurd meanderings, I think that the world is ridiculous, moving and cruel.  The same is true for this book: the story is cruel, the protagonists are moving, and I am ridiculous”  [Chapter 251, Vintage paperback]

Oh my goodness, this book.  This book broke my heart and is what all non-fiction should be like.

I haven’t read much non-fiction at all in recent years because I do a lot of it during my day job.  It turns out that well-written non-fiction is a whole different world to legal journals…who knew?  There’s such passion in Binet’s writing that it shines off the pages and is impossible to resist.

A slightly unusual blend of narrative styles, reading HHhH is a little like wandering around a museum with a knowledgeable guide: there’s a relaxed, almost chatty tone as Binet talks you through the “rise” of Reinhard Heydrich and the training of Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubiš as his to-be assassins but with plenty of tangents as Binet gets side-tracked by another anecdote or gets so caught up in the telling of the story that he dawdles off into the background of people involved.  There’s one anecdote that has really stuck with me about a Ukrainian football team pitted against a German team.  After refusing to start proceedings by saluting with a sturdy ‘Heil Hitler!’, the Ukrainian team went on to commit a grievous insult and actually win the match 5-1.  After strengthening their team with professional football players from Berlin, the Luftwaffe went on to lose the return fixture 5-3.  During the rush on the pitch after the match, much of the Ukrainian team disappeared and were never seen again, with the captain allegedly being executed while shouting, “Communist sport will never die!”.  The closing line to this anecdote reads, “I’m worried that there are some errors in what I’ve written: since this subject has no direct link with Heydrich, I haven’t had time to investigate more deeply.  But I didn’t want to write about Kiev without mentioning this incredible story”.  Like I said, very much like talking with a friend around and about a beloved topic.

I’ve written before about how I find the sheer scale of World War II utterly incomprehensible and this another superb book for bringing to the fore some of the many, many instances of bravery and tragedy.  Only this time, they’re real.  Heart-breaking in fiction, the non-fiction is all the more devastating.  I’m always amazed and inspired by the courage shown by “ordinary” people during war time.  Gabcik and Kubiš were astoundingly brave but they were supported by any number of equally courageous people that risked life and limb (and their family’s lives and limbs, incidentally) to offer shelter, food and local support.  There’s no way to describe how much I admired the people that I read about in this book.  ‘Admiration’ is even too weak a word…

HHhH reads almost like fiction: I felt gripped by the pages and my chest hurt with how desperately I wanted Heydrich’s nemeses to win through.  The problem with non-fiction, of course, is that the author can’t decide how their subjects’ lives pan out.  I was so caught up in Binet’s account of Gabcik and Kubiš (and so remiss in my WWII history) that I actually had to go and research the story so that I could relax and absorb the detail. 

My only slight reservation (that stops this book being a glowing five stars) was that the line between fiction and non-fiction wasn’t always solid.  I’ve already said that I loved the writing style but there were occasions where I would read a few chapters only to turn the page and read, “I made that up…but wouldn’t that have been perfect?”.  I didn’t mind where the upshot was that dialogue had been added in to flesh out an account of a real event but I was a little disconcerted when it turned out that an event I had just been tearing-up or gawping over turned out to be almost made up.  Still, I half think that the point of reading non-fiction is for that moment where you really get caught up in a topic and wander off to do your own digging so it was a feature I could tolerate well enough.

Overall:  If you have even the remotest interest in the history of World War II, you really must pick up HHhH.  If you are looking for a meticulously told and laid out historical account of Heydrich’s life and demise, you might be disappointed. If you’re looking for something a little more relaxed and focussed on the human side of WWII, I honestly haven’t read a book that I would recommend more.  Such a wonderful, wonderful book that I will read again and again.

Date finished:  24 March 2013
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Non-fiction
Pictured Edition Published: by Vintage in January 2013

Non-fiction Review: “Faux Amis” by Ellie Malet Spradbery

This is a first for Lit Addicted Brit: a review of a non-fiction. The main reason for this is that I don’t tend to read a great deal of non-fiction. I’ll read newspapers and law journals but, aside from that, most of my outside-of-work “learning” now is via televised documentaries. I think I should probably be ashamed about that. So anyway, on with this ‘first’!

Rating: 2.5 stars

Format: Paperback

Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewer program

Genre: Non-fiction – Language

Published: By Matador in 2010

What the blurb said:

A light-hearted exploration of the French language and culture and, in particular, words and phrases that could trip up the unwary linguist.

After reading this book of False Friends…you will be better able to avoid those awkward pitfalls and misunderstandings…An ideal companion for readers of French as well as travellers in France.

What I would say:

I was way more excited than I should admit when I saw this book on LibraryThing – when I was at college studying for a French A-Level (I don’t know the American equivalent, sorry!), my teacher used to have us in stitches with stories of ‘faux amis’. Literally translated, they are ‘false friends’, i.e. words that are spelt like English words but actually mean something completely different. Take, for example, une histoire – looks like ‘history’ but actually means, somewhat appropriately, ‘a story’.

Back then, my teacher’s point was to stop us being lazy and assuming we could translate things without checking. Later, I learned it was necessary to avoid major restaurant embarrassment after I ordered ‘steak tartare’ expecting a steak and receiving a lovely pile of raw diced beef with a raw egg yolk on top – not appealing to a new-to-France 17 year old…

So that’s the point of the book. I was looking forward to a better look at these common miscommunications and perhaps a couple of amusing scenarios to chuckle over. I was promised a “light-hearted exploration”, after all! What I got was a book of lists of words. Yes, it’s functional and is very helpful to someone at an intermediate level of French speaking with a love for words. But that’s it: no anecdotes; no explanations. Just translations. It’s great as that – my disappointment stems from what I expected and what I think the book could have been. And that’s entirely my own fault, not the author’s!

One high point was the section at the end on how to say some quintessentially English phrases in French, like “It’s not my cup of tea” (Ca n’est pas ma chose favorite) and “a hoo-hah” (un brouhaha) – ok, so that’s nerdy…but I liked it…

Overall: I really wouldn’t recommend this to an absolute beginner but it is a handy tool for an intermediate French speaker. It’s a very niche book and I can’t see it appealing to a reader with just a passing interest in languages but it is great as a pocket-sized resource.