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If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

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If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home by Lucy Worsley, book reviewIf you are the sort of person who wonders when women started wearing knickers, what people did before the flushing toilet became standard, or why people in much of the past seemed to have feared eating fruit, then If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is probably the book for you. Written by Lucy Worsley (Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces), it was prepared to accompany a BBC4 documentary of the same name that was first shown about three years ago (and which I unfortunately missed). Having seen several of Worsley’s other documentaries, though, I hoped that her engaging, chatty style would be as evident in her writing as it was in her presenting.

Divided into four sections, If Walls Could Talk gives us an informative and often surprising history of the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen from the earliest sources available to the present day.


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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum,  Katherine Boo, book reviewBehind the Beautiful Forevers: LIfe, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by American writer Katherine Boo is a remarkable book that reads like the best of fiction despite being founded in fact. I read it the whole way through without realising that it wasn’t fiction which is probably testimony to the page-turning quality of her writing. I’ve not seen a non-fiction book about India quite so astonishing, amazing and insightful since Dominique Lapierre and Javier Moro’s ‘Five Past Midnight in Bhopal’. Bearing in mind that the latter is one of the best books I’ve ever read, then you can take it that I’m seriously impressed by Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

We start with a death. It’s July 17th, 2008, and in a small hut in Annawadi slum on the periphery of Mumbai’s International Airport, a spiteful woman’s plan to upset her neighbours goes badly wrong.


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Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy

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Transforming India: Challenges to the World’s Largest Democracy Sumantra Bose, book reviewWith a nation of 1.25 billion people, India is the world’s most diverse and possibly most baffling democracy. At one end of the spectrum are prosperous farmers in the Punjab who live in chalets that could have come straight from Switzerland. At the other, in Mahasrashtra is the wife of a farmer who once did well enough to become his village’s pradhan, but who was forced by crop failure and debt to commit suicide and to be followed by the son as well, leaving the wife to bring up her grandchildren on one meal a day and the bullying of debtors she cannot repay.

Drawing on his wide-ranging experience in the field and his understanding of the Indian political system, Sumantra Bose recounts the tale of Indian democracy’s evolution from the 1950s and lists the threats that confront it today: they range from poverty and inequality to Maoist rebel cadres and Kashmir secessionists.


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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton

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The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton, Diane Atkinson, book review“A woman is made a helpless wretch by these laws of men” – Caroline Norton writing to Mary Shelley, 1837.

Caroline Norton is a name that deserves to be more widely known. Famous in her day, she left a profound and lasting legacy for women in Britain, and Diane Atkinson’s new book The Criminal Conversation of Mrs Norton rightly trains the spotlight back on this remarkable woman. Had she been a man, history would probably have recorded her name as a reformer along the lines of William Wiberforce, but as such she appears to have been largely forgotten now. This is an important story that women, particularly wives and mothers, everywhere should be familiar with and thankful for.


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Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer

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Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer by Hannes Rastam, book review“I wonder what you would think of me if you found out that I’ve done something really serious…”

It was with these few words, tentatively spoken to one of his nurses, that psychiatric patient Sture Bergwall started a remarkable chain of events that ultimately led to the publication of Thomas Quick: The Making of a Serial Killer by Hannes Råstam. I received a proof copy of this book recently with interest. I have read a good deal of British true crime books over the years, but my awareness of Swedish criminal cases extended only as far as Olof Palme (the assassinated Swedish prime minister) and the “Laser Man”, John Ausonius, who used a rifle equipped with a laser sight to shoot a number of people in and around Stockholm, killing one of them.


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Ausperity: Live the Life You Want For Less

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Ausperity: Live the Life You Want For Less, Lucy Tobin, book reviewLike going out and having lovely things but don’t have the money to afford for them? As a triple dip recession looks to be on the cards, more and more of us are looking for ways to save money and bag a bargain. Lucy Tobin’s book Ausperity: Live the life you want for less is a handbook for the modern scrimper. In it Lucy offers practical tips, honest advice and boundless enthusiasm for the task in hand.

Divided into obvious categories like holidays, clothing, food and drink, transport and utilities, it’s easy to find advice on specific areas, so if you’ve identified an area of your outgoings that is in particular need of being trimmed back, you can dip into the book and find what you want quickly.


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100 Places You Will Never Visit

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100 Places You Will Never Visit: The World's Most Secret Locations, Dan Smith, book reviewPossibly the strangest addition to the ranks of travel list publications, Daniel Smith’s new book 100 Places You Will Never Visit: The World’s Most Secret Locations is effectively a travel guide to places you can’t go. Or wouldn’t want to go for that matter.

So why read a book that tells about a bunch of things you can’t do? Well, for me the clincher was that I live virtually next door to one of these locations and I was a bit curious about it – the location being Cheltenham’s Government Communication Headquarters, usually abbreviated to GCHQ and known locally as “the doughnut” owing to its ring shape.


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Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood

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Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood, Fran Abrams, book reviewReferencing William’s Blake’s 1789 collection of poetry about childhood in its title, Fran Abrams’ new book Songs of Innocence: The Story of British Childhood offers an account of children’s recent social history from the Victorian era to the present day. While I have read several other books on childhood history, they have tended to be quite academic and it was a pleasant change to read something a bit more entertaining in tone. Abrams is a journalist by training (she works a lot for Radio 4 and the Guardian, and it shows) but has written other books with a social or social history theme to them (“Below the Breadline: Living on the Minimum Wage” and “Learning to Fail: How Society Lets Young People Down” amongst them); this is the first I have read.


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A Shrinking World

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Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History (Paperback) By (author) Canyon Sam, Foreword by Dalai Lama XIV, book reviewThe strange thing is that very few people were aware that women were marginalized in Tibet and then brought to the forefront after the Chinese occupation. You realize it reading through Sky Train. Most tellingly in the story of a Rinpoche who refuses to travel in the company of women, despite being accompanied by the woman’s husband and son as well. He calls the husband aside to tell him this and the result is that the family ends up being separated as the husband tries to escort the Rinpoche safely to the Indian border and the Chinese move in and arrest the two women, sisters, who share the same husband.

Canyon Sam is a third generation Chinese American who visited China in an attempt to discover her roots.


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Bullies, Bitches and Bastards

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Bullies, Bitches and Bastards - Eileen Condon, Amanda Edwards, book reviewBullies, Bitches and Bastards was a very cheap Kindle download which caught my eye recently. In retrospect I can’t think why I bought it – other than it was only 99 pence. I really do need to be a bit discriminating with my Kindle purchases because it’s a silly load of nonsense that shows just how risky it is letting people self publish.

I’m a lazy Kindle user and the probability of me reading anything is much higher if the title is at the start of the alphabet though I must admit the sheer size of Anna Karenina still has me flicking past that one each time I go to the index. Anyone considering publishing an Aardvark Almanac would be sure to get read if I’d downloaded it.

I fired up BB&B and was soon really irritated.

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Underground, Overground

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Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube by Andrew Martin, book reviewUnderground, Overground by Andrew Martin is subtitled “A Passenger’s History of the Tube”. Since he was young, Martin has been fascinated by the tube, and this is his attempt to tell its history, not from the historian’s point of view, but as a passenger.

Since I moved to London, I’ve developed an interest in the tube. I have read about it, but I’m not that interested in the technical or engineering side of its history. I am interested in the social history of the underground, of how it contributed to London’s growth and made it into the city it is today. From this point of view, Martin’s book seemed ideal for a reader like me.


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Lives after the Cyclone

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Portraits From Ayodhya: Living India's Contradictions by  Scharada Dubey, book reviewThe demolition of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya came out of nowhere one peaceful Sunday in 1992 and threatened normal city life for a week all over India with enforced curfews and army parades to ensure that citizens stayed safe. However that was the boiling over of an issue that had been festering in the Indian heartland side by side with the Bhopal Gas crisis and the Sikh riots. The problem, of course, began because Hindu extremists laid claim to Ayodhya as the birthplace of the epic hero Rama, elevated to the status of divinity. However, Ayodhya was not just a place of Hindu pilgrimage – it was a meeting place of several religions, including Buddhism, Sufism, Jainism, and Islam, all of whom held Ayodhya equally sacred. Even though for the bulk of the residents, the squabble was just part and parcel of all the other land based controversies that belonged to the Ayodhya way of life.


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