No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

Greta Thunberg has been campaigning to raise awareness for the climate crisis since 2018. This book gathers together a selection of her most important and influential speeches on the subject.

For those who don’t know about her message, she’s essentially doing all she can to highlight the fact that the climate crisis poses as existential threat to all human beings. Her speeches rightly calls out world leaders and business owners who are responsible for the largest contributions of carbon into our atmosphere. She draws attention to the fact that while many businesses and governments claim that they are being environmentally friendly, or taking steps to tackle the crisis, the reality is that they are doing very little indeed. She highlights that the rate of change is not nearly enough to save humanity from disaster and depends too much on future technological developments which might not even happen.

It’s bleak and depressing reading, but it is enormously important. Everyone needs to be aware of the reality of the situation and to push back against governments and businesses who are essentially lying to everybody. The fact that she is doing such a good job of getting her message out there does give me a bit of hope, but there’s so much more that needs to be done.

The only real criticism that I have of this book is that because it is a collection of speeches that Thunberg gave to different audiences, occasionally they can be a bit repetitive. Still, perhaps that helps to reinforce her message. Ultimately, I have the utmost respect for her and if the world can change the way things work to combat a pandemic, then we can and should be taking equally drastic measures to combat climate change.

Rating: 9/10

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Moby Dick by Herman Melville

As I’m sure you already know, Moby Dick is widely regarded as one of the best pieces of American literature ever written. I love the classics and I also have a particular soft spot for American literature, so, of course, I was keen to read this book. Unfortunately, it was an experience I found very disappointing.

It starts out well enough, with the main character (Ishmael), narrating how he came to meet Captain Ahab and ultimately ended up joining him for a whaling voyage. This lasts for approximately the first fifth of the book and if the whole thing was written like this, I’d actually think it was an alright sort of book. Unfortunately, once their journey across the ocean began, my enjoyment of the book dropped dramatically.

The problem was that this is a really long book, but not very much happens while they travel across the sea. Chapters are filled with Herman Melville’s knowledge of whales and whaling and I’ll admit that occasionally I’d get to a bit that was kind of interesting, but the problem is that Melville’s knowledge of whales is not 100% accurate. This may be because I have the luxury of modern understanding, but a lot of stuff that he says is just wrong. Are whales mammals or fish? Practically everybody today knows that they are mammals… but Melville spends quite a lot of time talking about how they are fish and not mammals. Other times he just starts talking about non-whale related subjects and trying to make them whale-related, for example, arguing that the dragon in the story of St. George was actually a whale.

But, you know what, I love whales. They’re fascinating and beautiful creatures. If it was just a bunch of longwinded and inaccurate essays about them, I think I’d still have gotten a reasonable amount of enjoyment from the book. Probably the most frustrating thing of all was that he goes to great lengths to try and convince the reader that whaling is a very noble and respectable line of work. Whaling is cruel and barbaric and it almost caused whales to go extinct. This is something Melville would have been surprised by because one of his little essays is about how human beings could never over-hunt whales because there’s just so many of them. Melville himself was a whaler and at times he genuinely seemed to have forgotten he was writing this book in the first person as Ishmael and just slips into talking about his own life and opinions. It comes across quite badly at times.

That aside, there’s the character Queequeg, a Polynesian man. I believe that Melville probably included him in order to try and be progressive and I respect that intent, but it does come across as very patronising and not very well thought out. Ishmael and Queequeg do form a genuinely strong friendship and I liked this a lot. They sleep in the same bed with their arms wrapped around one another and even get married to each other in a tradition that comes from Queequeg’s people. I don’t know if we were supposed to read them as gay, or if this was more to highlight the strength of their friendship (I really like either option), but it’s interesting and refreshing to read. However, throughout the book, Queequeg is referred to a ‘cannibal’ and genuinely treated as someone of lower intelligence. At one point, Ishmael says something along the lines of “of course I respect Queequeg’s religion, even if to me it is the equivalent of an ant worshipping a mushroom.” which I think nicely sums up the patronising way that Queequeg is treated throughout the book, and I don’t think that this is an intentional way of highlighting the prejudice of the time either.

So, as with any book, there were bits that I liked and appreciated. But, gosh, this book felt like a huge chore. Sadly, there was more that I didn’t like than what I did like. It just reads like unstructured rambling a lot of time, with Melville trying to show off that he knows a lot about whales, (when really he actually doesn’t) and only the loosest story to tie it all together. I did kind of like how it ended, at very least, but I have to say, if I were editing it, I’d have cut out so much that I’d turn this really long novel into little more than a short story – it’s just so full of things that did nothing for me.

Rating: 4.4/10

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The Comte de St. Germain by Isabel Cooper-Oakley

While browsing the pages of Wikipedia, I found myself looking at the page of a bizarre historic figure called the Count of St. Germain. While reading his page, I thought that he seemed a very bizarre and enigmatic person, so I decided I’d try a biography about him. I chose the one written by Isabel Cooper-Oakley (the best known option) and I’m really glad I did, because this book was absolutely fascinating.

What makes the Count of St. Germain so interesting? Well, where should I begin? There’s the fact that nobody knows what his real name was. The fact that he claimed to have found the secrets to immortality. The fact that people who knew him claimed that he always appeared to be physically exactly the same (never aging), even after decades. The fact that he claimed to have knowledge of the future and seemingly tried to warn people about it. The fact that he appeared to be able to speak ‘every’ language fluently… I could go on.

The Count of St. Germain is an absolutely fascinating figure and Isabel Cooper-Oakley has gathered together a nice selection of historic texts that refer to him or shed light on the story of his life. You’ll find correspondence between him and government officials, personal accounts from members of royal families about his visits and more. I found the sections about his visits to the French Monarchy ahead of the revolution particularly engaging reads.

A lot of the time, I found myself feeling like I was reading a piece of sci-fi or fantasy, like all of these documents were just part of a story about a time traveller or a vampire, or something like that. I love that it’s all real and I can’t help but wonder what exactly was really going on with him.

Cooper-Oakley explains that because the Count had a bit of a reputation for being somewhat otherworldly, people began to make up exaggerated tales about him. Some people even used to go around pretending to be him in order to try and discredit him, which makes sense. Plus, some of the more outlandish accounts (for example, one where he gives somebody a description of life in the twentieth century centuries before) have at least a shadow of a doubt against their integrity.

Still, most of the strange and outlandish things about him are reported by reliable sources. A lot of very important people seemed to genuinely believe that this man didn’t age, or that he was potentially hundreds of years old. Was he a genius conman who was manipulating the leaders of the world towards his own ends? If so, what was his goal? There are so many unanswered questions.

I loved this book and am so glad to have had a chance to learn about this historic oddity. He instantly became my favourite historic mystery too. We may never have a rational explanation for all of these accounts, but it’s certainly fun to just take them all at face value and imagine that they’re all completely true.

Rating: 9/10

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Assassination Classroom, Volume 10 by Yusei Matsui

In Volume 10 of Assassination Classroon, things are now back to normal for the class following the drama that unfolded for them while they were on the tropical island. As such, things are fairly light-hearted at first. Kayano finally gets to take a turn in the spotlight with her own unique assassination attempt involving a giant cake and then the class gets involved in some free-running based training. Standard Assassination Classroom stuff – not boring by any means, but not as interesting as some of the more recent events.

However, things really do start to pick up when certain allegations are raised against Koro-sensei. Various women in the area have had underwear stolen from them and based on the descriptions they give, the children can only conclude that Koro-sensei is responsible. However, as he denies that this is the case, the class begins to investigate the matter, keen to find out the truth one way or another.

I won’t spoil the outcome of that investigation, but this volume also sees the return of Itona. I was already interested in Koro-sensei’s “brother” but he’s written really interestingly here and has some great character development, including a look at his backstory.

All in all a satisfying volume. As always, I’m left looking forward to the next volume and still strongly recommend this superb manga!

Rating: 8.7/10

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Reflecting on 2021

It’s become a kind of tradition for me to write a blog post reflecting on the year on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day, so I thought I’d do that again this year, especially as I write on my blog much less often than I used to.

For me, this year has largely been defined by the fact that I contracted COVID-19. That was an unpleasant experience. I still don’t feel quite the same since going through that – but it is nice that it’s now largely behind me. I was one of the unlucky people who found themselves having to be hospitalised as a consequence of the virus, even getting hooked up to an oxygen machine at one point.

The pain in my chest was so intense that I couldn’t really move and any time I tried to breathe in, it hurt me a lot. The pain seemed to come in waves and I was so completely exhausted that it was difficult to remain conscious. As everything started to flare up and I found myself on the brink of passing out, I was mentally asking the question: could this be the end of life? I certainly couldn’t imagine being a state worse than that, where just lying half-conscious on a bed was extremely difficult. This thought didn’t really make me sad – I was in agony and so I didn’t really care about anything. Besides thinking absently to myself that I’d had a good life, the only real thought I had was that if anything happened I hoped it wouldn’t be too hard for my house friend to find another cohabiter.

Of course, I was fine, but the recovery period was very slow. At times, I wondered if I’d ever be well enough to work full time again, but at this point in time, I’ve started a new, much better job and am working full time once more. In fact, I’m leading a pretty happy and stress-free life these days and it’s nice to consider how much of a turn around I’ve had. It’s reassuring to think that even when things were as bad as that, it was all okay again in the end, and that’s something valuable for me to keep in mind for future.

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My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

Is it ethical to have a child so that they can serve as a donor for another child? This is the question that this book explores. Kate is a little girl who is dying from Leukaemia and her parents have another child, Anna, so that she can be a bone marrow donor for her sister. Throughout her life, she undergoes a number of very painful procedures in order to help prolong Kate’s life, but then at thirteen, she decides that she will no longer go through with all of this, after her mother tells her that she will need to donate a kidney to her sister.

This is such a fascinating concept to me and what helps to make this an absolutely incredible novel is the fact that each and every character is really well developed. At times you may think that Anna’s mother, Sara, seems cold and uncaring towards Anna, but then when you get to see all that she’s been through with Kate’s health deterioration and it’s difficult to stay mad at her, because you see where she’s coming from even if, like me, you are completely on Anna’s side.

Eventually, this turns into a court case, with Anna seeking medical emancipation from her parents so that she can gain autonomy on all medical matters. Through this, you meet Campbell Alexander, Anna’s lawyer, a character who has an interesting history of his own which adds a lot to the novel. I cared very much for every character, because as a reader, I’d been through so much with everyone of them. When conflict arises, you can sympathise with everyone and it all feels so real.

Ultimately, what Jodi Picoult has done is take an interesting question of moral philosophy and then created a cast of three-dimensional characters with a huge amount of depth in order to humanise every perspective. No character really exists just to serve a purpose in the plot, rather, each person feels as though they are the main character of their own story – just as they should.

The book has a huge twist which I didn’t see coming and which left me absolutely stunned. As usual, I won’t spoil anything about it, but I will say that this is one of the moving novels I’ve read in a long time. The emotional impact was so big, that I felt it a long time after I’d finished book and so I can only give it my highest recommendation. Do try it!

Rating: 9.8/10

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A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin

I read through the fourth book in A Song of Ice and Fire with a kind of strange perspective. Of the first three, there had certainly been things that I’d liked, but there’d also been a lot of things that I didn’t like. By this point in time, I go in not really expecting to enjoy myself, but just wanting to find out what happens. To some extent, having zero expectations means that I was able to enjoy it more. I suppose the best way of putting it is to say that it when you’re in a room with a bad smell, you eventually get used to that bad smell and I do find myself slowly getting used to the smell of A Song of Ice and Fire.

So, spoiler alert for the previous book, one thing that quite disappointed me was that the cliff-hanger of the last book (Catelyn’s unexpected return) isn’t revisited until right at the end and even then, not much is done with it. Plus, knowing that this book is contemporaneous with the next one, I have a feeling that this plot development won’t really be explored in the next book either, which is a shame considering how crazy this revelation is.

That’s another thing about this book: half the characters aren’t in it. Because Martin wanted to have this book set at the same time as the next one, with each book showing the experiences of half the characters, you don’t get to see what Daenerys or Tyrion are doing in this one, which is a shame since their storylines are some of the more interesting ones. Still, you do get to see Brienne, Samwell, Jamie and Arya and I generally enjoyed their storylines. In fact, with Jamie in particular, I started to grow quite fond of him, even though he hadn’t done much for me before. He has a nice character arc.

One thing I’d like to mention her is that I’ve always thought that Martin was quite bad at writing female characters and generally quite leery in the way that he did so. In this book, I feel like he started to get just a little bit better at that, though the leeriness reared its head again from time to time. Obviously, he already had Brienne and Arya, who I think he writes well, but there was also a new character called Asha who was really good and I think she reflects this change.

Although, while Asha was a nice addition, this book adds six new point of view characters and there’s just so many characters at this point, many of whom only have a few chapters to themselves, and I just didn’t care about a lot of them. In the earlier books, I’d recognise the names of all the point of view characters and know what to expect with each new chapter. This time, I’d often find that the next chapter was from the POV of a character I’ve never heard of and I’d just groan inwardly at having to get to know another random person. Besides Asha, none of them really enticed me that much.

To some extent, it feels as though the story could and should have been wrapped up in the third book, but that loads of extra plot-elements have just been added to keep things going. Everything here feels quite removed from the first three novels and, to some extent, this feels weird – but you do also get the impression that the world has changed a lot as a consequence of all that’s happened and I did like that.

Overall though, while there are certainly positives, this book was a slog to get through. It’s so long and so many parts felt superfluous to me. It could probably have been half the length and not lost its positives. So many scenes and even whole chapters that just went on and on and seemed to contribute nothing to the overall story. If you’ve read this far into the series, you know what to expect, but this one was especially guilty of it. It’s not a bad book, but it’s far from being a good one.

Rating: 5.1/10

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Wikipedia

Today’s book review is something of an anomaly. This is the first time I’ve ever reviewed a ‘book’ I haven’t read all of and the first one I never intend to finish. I’m sure that a lot of people might not even consider it as a ‘book’ or something that fits alongside book reviews in general. But over the years, I have to say, I’ve spent an awfully large amount of time reading Wikipedia.

I wanted to write about it, not only because I have found it to be useful, valuable and fascinating at many times throughout my life, but because I love what it stands for. This was written by the people, for the people and is an enormous repository of information that’s available for free and which hasn’t (yet) been polluted with endless adverts, unlike many other longstanding websites.

As a teenager, I was practically addicted to Wikipedia. Where else could I learn so much about popular culture, religion, history, literature, science, mysteries and a thousand other things? I know that Wikipedia has a reputation for having unreliable information because it can be edited by anybody and while this may be a fair point, there are so many vigorous editors on Wikipedia and the rules of the site do require sources to be cited. I know mistakes slip through the cracks, but this is true of every repository of knowledge and when Wikipedia has been tested against more traditional encyclopaedias, it’s been found that Wikipedia is not significantly less accurate.

One of the most enjoyable ways to spend some free time is to read up on something you’re passionate about on Wikipedia, click on some links to other pages and then go on a journey. It’s easy to forget how much information Wikipedia gives us access to, so I do recommend that you make time to have a look around the Wiki realms. I’m confident that you’ll learn something new and fascinating. In fact, I recommend starting on the page about Wikipedia itself – its fascinating.

I hope we never lose Wikipedia.

Rating: 10/10

Access it here.

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Wiccan Rede

With this post, the Wiccan Rede becomes the first religious text for me to write a book review of – but I am using the word ‘book’ very liberally here. In actuality, the Wiccan Rede, the text which summarises the moral code at the heart of the Wiccan religion is a twenty-six line poem, which is certainly a lot shorter than the central texts of many other religions, but this is by no means a bad thing.

With religion being a very personal matter to many people, it makes a lot of sense to have an important text be so short and accessible. To take the Holy Bible of Christianity as a contrast, that’s an absolutely enormous book that most Christians aren’t ever going to have time to read all of and with so many different texts written at different points in history, it’s moral lessons aren’t consistent throughout, leading to confusion and conflict.

Meanwhile, the Wiccan Rede succinctly summarises the ethos of the religion in a quick and easy to digest way. Nicely, it’s a poem that rhymes, making it fun to read and its meaning is fairly straight forward. The second line starts with “live and let live” and that kind of gives you all you need to know. The ultimate message is that you should live life however you want, while making sure that you aren’t harming others in the process – and by ‘others’ it includes the environment around you.

As you might imagine, it also gives information on when to celebrate the different Wiccan holidays throughout the year. I’m neither here nor there on this addition, but including this in a nice rhyming poem is a rather good one of making note of it. There are also parts about casting circles to keep evil spirits away and other supernatural elements – I don’t believe in evil spirits or supernatural things, so these don’t have much meaning to me, but I do find it interesting to read about the rites that other people believe in.

Of course, it could be argued that the moral system here is too basic and that’s a fair point. Having said that, I feel like its basic principle is a useful enough guiding point and that no text, no matter how big, could ever possibly give guidance for every single scenario, so brevity isn’t too much of a problem in my opinion.

All in all, I’d say it’s something that’s worth giving a read: it’s a good introduction to Wicca and helps provide a quick introduction to the guiding moral principles of Wiccans. As such a short piece of writing, I’d recommend it simply so that you can understand Wiccan people more. As somebody who likes to consider themselves as liberal and progressive, I certainly appreciated the all-accepting tone of it because it aligns closely with my own beliefs.

Rating: 8.5/10

Read it here.

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A Waltons Story by Kirsti Zanker

Earlier in the year, I decided to start reading self-published fanfiction in order to broaden my literary horizons. After all, I thought to myself, how many amazing pieces of writing may be hidden away in the archives of fanfiction.net? Naturally, I started with a fan written Waltons novel. At the time, I thought The Waltons was a good choice because there wasn’t going to be any more of it, but now we’re getting a new movie, so what do I know? Either way, I still think I chose a good place to start.

What drew me to A Walton Story (other than it being a whole new novel-length Waltons story for me to consume) was the fact that it follows John-Boy after Season 6 of The Waltons. At this point in the series, he leaves to travel around the world as a war reporter… but he is broken hearted as his relationship with Daisy has come to an end. When the novel started with John-Boy alone and miserable in his New York apartment, I was kind of confused, because I thought “He shouldn’t be in his apartment, he should be travelling the world right now!” and then I realised that this story was taking a different path to the series – a “what if”.

Here, John-Boy and Daisy do break up, but they afterwards decide to try to give their relationship a second try. I always thought that John-Boy and Daisy were a good couple, so I was happy to see a story where the two of them get a second chance together… but things don’t work out. On the show, of course, Daisy doesn’t tell John-Boy that she’d had a child before they were together and the author seems to take this as a defining feature for Daisy’s character. She consistently hides things from John-Boy throughout the story and is genuinely not very good at communicating with him, which is sad to see.

But it’s not all one-sided. I was disappointed with John-Boy in this story. As much as I always admire him, I felt that he was very quick to anger and unsympathetic towards Daisy. At times it was uncomfortable, because it was very much like a real relationship that had turned toxic – on the one hand, this was really well written, on the other, I did think it was a bit unfair to both characters, who came off worse than they ever did in the show… but then I do appreciate different creators reinterpreting existing characters in new ways.

On the other hand, John and Olivia were both written perfectly. I think there voices were captured really well and I thought that they acted exactly as they would if they’d encountered this situations in an episode. The same is true for most of the other characters, really, and throughout the story there are plenty of fun little references to other Waltons episodes which, as a fan, I thoroughly enjoyed. You can tell that the author is very familiar with the show. An unexpected character shows up towards the end, which was a nice treat, but I won’t say who, because I don’t want to spoil any of the later developments.

I should also mention the character Millie. Millie was never on The Waltons and is completely unique, but I thought she brought a lot to the story. She’s a neighbour of John-Boy’s and she is a very kind, caring and likeable person. I could easily have seen her fitting into the show as a recurring character and it’s nice to see the author introducing some characters of her own.

Overall, I do prefer the version of events that actually transpired on The Waltons from Season 7 onward, but it was interesting to see another fan’s vision for how things could have gone. I know that some people don’t enjoy the final three seasons of the show, so maybe they’ll like this as an alternative – John-Boy certainly plays a bigger role here than he did in Seasons 7, 8 and 9. I think, for me, the biggest drawback was that the author interprets John-Boy and Daisy very differently to me, which didn’t quite sit right, but, all in all, I’m certainly glad I read it and it’s good to have this extra Waltons story out there.

Rating: 6.5/10

Read it here.

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