Book of the Month- May A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

The Discworld. Rincewind. The Unseen University. And, of course, antipasta.

Do you even read science-fiction if these words are alien to you? Terry Pratchett, the author of over 70 books, was a literary mastermind (who created the aforementioned words, or in the case of antipasta, decided that it was actually pasta that was prepared, like all antimatter, several hours after you ate it). He created the Discworld, a mega-series that contained no less than 41 novels. In 2000, he was voted the nation’s favourite author by the people of Britain. (Well, 2nd favourite author, if you include Rowling!) But Pratchett was also a remarkable campaigner for Alzheimer’s, animal rights and having a bit of sense of a sense of humour.

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In this collection of his most celebrated speeches and articles, there is hardly an instance where one isn’t littered with a witty pun or sly joke. This book surveys almost the entirety of Pratchett’s lifetime, reflecting on his time at school, the nuclear power station (who knew?) as well as his career in journalism. Given that Pratchett, as far as I know, has no official biography, this is all we have. This snapshot of various moments of his life is all the people who admired this man, who’d become a knight in his lifetime, can go by.

“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.” Pratchett

And why would you want to go without? By reading this, I have gained such an invaluable insight into not only his writing methods, but more memorably his stance on Alzheimer’s and assisted death in the UK. Pratchett was probably one of the most famous sufferers of the disease when he was alive, donating £1 million to their charity and creating various documentaries. Reading this has given me such a remarkable perspective on the topic of euthanasia, that it was starting to become a much more philosophical read than I had bargained for!

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I was incredibly moved, too. To be able see in the articles the progression of topics from childhood anecdotes, to his endless book signing tours- where he always wrote about how incredulous he was at his popularity- to hearing the frustration and anger in his words as he described the onset of the disease. How he could no longer type, because the letters would disappear from the keyboard. How he could no longer read his own speeches, and had to have someone else present them for him. To hear such a renowned and literally accomplished person describe their struggles is something that is painful, yet if you respect them, necessary to endure.

In a way, this is possibly better than a biography. The pointless parts, the vague relationships and holes between occupations have already been melted away, so only the quality information is left for us to experience. Of course, occasionally there was repetition of a phrase here or there, yet this was only to be expected since Pratchett had given more interviews and written more articles than anyone could possibly perceive, so to expect every piece to be completely original is borderline ludicrous.

When I was younger, I wrote Terry a letter. I even him drew a dragon, something that I was truly proud of, and was even slightly reluctant to send it away. I did it nonetheless, but I never received a reply from him. It’s not in bitterness that I mention this, but merely in recollection. Particularly towards the end of his life, Pratchett noted that he was receiving so many emails and letters that it he would never have the time to rely to  even a fraction of them, and the immense feeling of regret that filled him at the thought of this.

I suppose this book really is only relevant it to you if you like science-fiction, or at the very least Terry himself. And if you’re unfamiliar, then make it your priority to explore one his books straight away- you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised. I guarantee it.

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5 Signs You’re a Reader

We all know that reading is a dangerous sport and yet many of us persist, despite the very obvious perils. If you are, however, unfamiliar with the hazards, then here they are.

1. You will buy books instead of food. Or clothes, theatre tickets, houses…

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No. Not the important ones like I will become a fountain of gratitude,  meditate everyday and recycle everything. You will slowly start to cut back to afford books, (given that merely borrowing one is a terrible idea) and it not only becomes a question of skimming the grocery shelves for the lowest prices so that you bound over to the book section and splurge (splurge? This is legitimate spending going on here) but also, start asking questions like: do I really need a new jumper? It may have a massive hole in the middle, but £30 could buy me a wonderful new hardback, and a cheeky paperback too if I’m thrifty. Again, it’s won’t really be a choice you’re making, but a predestined path you’re following.

2. You hoard.

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It’s true. After all, once you’d started that Harry Potter series, there was no way that the subsequent 6 other books wouldn’t wriggle their way into your bookshelves too, right? It starts off alright, with the books stacked neatly in the cupboards, and you tell yourself that at the end off every month you will clear them out, but soon you have to face the reality. How could you ever throw something like A Bear Called Paddington away? It squints at you, the corner of the front page a bit jammy from when your 7-year-old self was munching breakfast and reading. Then you remember that happened on holiday in Cornwall, oh memories of Cornwall, and then you realise that to throw away Paddington would practically be blasphemy, because, well, it’s been with you for so long, and what if you might, maybe read it again?

3. You have no social life.

Do I want to go out to a long stuffy dinner to face a mangled crustacean or stay at home with a book and enough ice cream (in my case, granola and yoghurt) to last? It’s a quite simple answer, actually. Soon, you find that you become much better friends with fictional characters than real people. It’s sad, but true- anyway no one has a sense of humour quite like Death from the Discworld series, so why bother looking any further? And you won’t really be in your living room, will you?

(“So what did you get up to on Friday night?” *Looks around, innocently* “Me? I was trekking in the Amazon and got attacked by a crocodile” *Cue other person slowly shuffling away*)

Well, at least books can’t reject you, and to say the least, going out for dinners might become rarity because…

4.You’re TBR is normally waaaaay to long (and an existential crisis ensues).

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You read. Then you begin to read more, start searching novels online and begin chatting to friends (those you have left) not about the weather, (which may be just as well) but this year’s Man Booker shortlist. Stop, before it gets out of hand. But you can’t. Book research is addictive, (as is endlessly perusing the shelves of bookshops when you’ve already bought a book, but are wallowing in the excitement of potentially diving into the tombs around you). Yet, like everything, there becomes a limit and soon it seems perhaps you can’t quite read all 207 books on your TBR that’s you’ve collected that year in the 14 days preceding your TBR deadline. You made the deadline to gently push you in the right direction and pressure you to find enough time to read. Trust me, this tactic becomes stressful, and you start to flail and wonder how, let alone on a time limit, but ordinarily you’re going to finish them all. There’s no consolidation either, no gentle hand willing you to step back, because you have actually wanted to read all them since, forever it seems… and ditching that list would be wasted hours.

5. You show your love for books in weird and strange ways.

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A conversation of praise isn’t enough, oh no. Cue the Pinterest accounts, the Facebook group chats dedicated to books series (I’ve known it happen, that’s all I’m saying) drawing endless pictures of your favourite scenes in the books, and even tattoos.

Reading is a commitment, my friend. Look where we are now; I find myself writing about books in my free time, when I could be doing actual useful stuff, and you are reading this (which I very much appreciate, I have to say). But seriously, people become seriously attached to novels.

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For example, don’t even try to argue against Tris on a forum, unless you want to end up hunted out like a Divergent yourself. Also, you might start finding yourself dressing like the characters and even wearing the same type of clothes. I know. (Having said that, Katniss braids are AWESOME so why wouldn’t you want one? I should have stopped trying to defend myself by now to be honest.) And you know all those fancy book quotes that we see plastering library /bedroom walls / phone cases. Someone had to make them, and normally they were  done by the fanatics themselves.

So you’ve been warned. These are the perils of reading. (Happy April Fools!) Have you personally suffered from any of these traits, or seen something entirely different spring up as a result? Do let me know and have a great (hopefully prank free) day!

TBR Tuesday- My Top 5

The average reader has at least 65 books on their TBR. I am no exception. It seems that every time I even look into a bookshop window (it just proves how good Waterstones is at promotion!), it gets much, much longer. Stops at the library are dangerous. Books on display, all waiting to taken, except when you do crumple into the temptation, they merely end up sitting in your shelf accusingly because you have no time to read them, given that you have at least 10 other library books you need to read first. The result? Awkward chats with the librarians, asking for ‘just one more extension’ on the book, when really you know it’s not going to be read in two weeks, is it? Or, you bring it back at the end of the time sheepishly, and when asked “How did you find it?” you dip your head in embarrassment and say “Oh, well, it was on that shelf over there and I just saw it as I walked in” and scuttle away before you can feel their quizzical gaze on you. You once (when asked) pretended that the plot was original indeed, however it was, all things considered, an anticlimax. Why did I think it was an anticlimax- is that what you’ve just asked? Well, although you thought a knowing shrug and nod of the head was a sufficient answer to that one, they clearly did not.

So, here is what’s recently joined the party of my TBR, which is turning more and more into a rowdy Glastonbury mosh pit than anything else, with books battling it , roughly pushing each other out the way for the coveted number one spot.

I will start with Number 5 (just to add to the suspense) :

5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Offred has limited options in her society, The Republic of Gilead. The dominating one: have children. If she doesn’t, then she’ll be punished and live an exiled life in a wasteland, destined to die of radiation sickness. Yet can fear of the law repress Offred’s dangerous desire, desire which does not conform to the rules?

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I’ll admit it. I’ve never read any of Atwood’s books, and it’s high time that I start. In a time of such political upheaval, this didn’t seem like such a poor choice to help me reflect upon events, either.

4. Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre

Quite Ugly One Morning is a humorous murder mystery set in Scotland, with a sassy journalist, Jack Parlabane, for a protagonist. He unwillingly finds a corpse and then willingly shoulders his way into the centre of this investigation. Filled with (apparently) remarkable dialogue and wonderful characters.

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It will be funny. It will (hopefully) have people making haggis to perfection. It will be a change from the ‘serious’ literary novels. Or so I hope- but I’ll have to read it first to find out.

3.  The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

An amalgamation of science-fiction and fantasy short stories, often finding inspiration in the most mundane of subjects.
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You know me. Any excuse to read short stories… especially since this collection has had overwhelmingly positive feedback. So why restrain myself? (I think somewhere the title ‘The Paper Menagerie’ also resonated with me, because it is too similar to The Glass Menagerie, a play I found amazing, and therefore some biased link was made!)

2. American Street by Ibi Zobo

Fabiola travels from Port-au-Prince to Detroit, in search of that old Golden Dream, and her American cousins. But once her mother is detained in U.S immigration, Fabiola not only has to navigate the high school politics alone, but how to deal with America’s attitude  towards her arrival, too.
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It seems like a relevant novel to read right now, with the immigrant crisis at its peak. But also, after recently reading A.A.Gill’s essay on Port-au-Prince, I’m interested to explore a part of that city from another perspective, even if it is a fictional one. American Street seems like it will be a proper young adult novel, one that I can truly enjoy, and be a wonderful example for the genre.

1.Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Frank and April Wheeler have everything, everything that a couple in the 1950s could want. A new house, two small children, talent. Of course, April never hoped that she’d be a housewife, and Frank never hoped that his job would be so monotonous, but they know that these are sacrifices for the great reward. The reward of a happier relationship and that lifestyle always just beyond reach. But is it? Yates describes the Wheelers’ once noble intentions slowly falling apart, and as they do so, the pair disappoint not only each other, but the people they should have been.
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I’m not sure if “the blurb sounds really awesome” is a good answer, but that’s basically my thinking. I think when I read this there were an acute, yet tender, examination of relationships, done a poignant and unashamed way, which will be refreshing (and sometimes painful?) to read. Also, it is set in the 1950s, and since I have recently been doing so much reading on the World Wars, it will be useful to read a story set in America’s post-war era.
Have you read any of these books? What are your thoughts on them? Is your TBR completely random, and changes constantly, or are you quite quick at ploughing through it? Do comment below!

February Book of the Month – A.A Gill is Further Away: Helping with Enquiries

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Everyone was shocked. It was unexpected, especially since A.A.Gill had only recently revealed his cancer. His death has shaken literary world; now there is a gaping hole where his columns used to be, ever opinionated and witty. Unfortunately, the newly employed writers are floundering to fill it: reading over their thoughts of the mango soufflé suddenly appear (whereas it most certainly hadn’t before,) trivial. Of course those journalist can’t help it, but how can you fill the page in place of one of the best journalists of our time and not appear feeble in comparison?

I decided to read A.A.Gill is Further Away because his death had inspired me to look what he had achieved and created. It contains a remarkable selection of short essays- the book is roughly split into two: the first half is composed of essays which he had written about his experiences in England, and for the latter each essay is about a foreign country. The remarkable thing about Gill’s writing is that the subject is almost regardless. His essays about bantam chickens are as compelling as those reflecting on his trip to Haiti. Every topic felt fresh and were explored with such a zest and enthusiasm towards the subject that is difficult to find elsewhere. You can tell that Gill enjoyed his job, that he felt satisfaction from diving into corners of the English language to extract the most precise metaphor, or adjective, or obscure yet oddly accurate imagery. The descriptions are vivid and quite literary for essays, which I enjoyed because often I find that non-fiction books can be stale in that respect.

The variety of subjects were in itself a relief: each essay is roughly 10 pages long and detailed enough to make one feel (if somewhat briefly) immersed in the location, but because Gill’s writing is incredibly intense, not so long that one loses concentration or interest. Gill has a unique voice, one which is blatantly unafraid to point out the faults in a country or to highlight the triumphs in the ordinary. This is wonderful. So often people are timid to say something that not only defies public opinion, but in fact is disparaging, simply because of fear. There’s none of that here! And those readers who think that this type of writing, or as it has been labelled ‘complaining’, is dull, well it isn’t. Gill writes about, for example, his Madagascan tribal culinary experience with such humorous distaste that it’s impossible not only to sympathise with him, but to laugh.

I thought that A.A.Gill is Further Away was a fantastic collection of essays and contained some of the best pieces of travel writing that I’ve come across. If you’re looking for an escape, not necessarily to another world as the cliché goes, but at least to another country, then look no further.

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The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan

It’s January. People are looking at gym leaflets, trying again to stick to the resolutions they made in vain last year. Trying as best possible to hide from last year’s events, (whether it was political, or that Dinner Party at Fred’s which no one dares mention,) using the new shiny ‘2017’ as a shield. It is at this time of year that most people try and avoid history, in whatever form. However, we shouldn’t shun history. It should not be cast aside. Instead, it should be utilised, and used to our advantage. (So, note to self, never attempt to serve Baked Alaska near the Victorian curtains again.) The Uses and Abuses of History illustrates people who have done exactly that (no, not served Baked Alaska and then set the house on fire,)  but have used history to their advantage. Although there may be situations you will never find yourself in, there are many examples that can be related to, and the book will start to answer the common question: What can you even do with history?

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The Uses and Abuses of History is a thorough review of the way history has been manipulated and used as a tool in order to achieve certain goals. It shows us what the consequences are when history is taken into the wrong hands, and how this can in turn affect us in the present. To tell the truth, there wasn’t exactly a balance of uses and abuses of history, as Macmillian mainly looked at the more negative side to the way the past has been used, but it was nevertheless an interesting collection of essays.

For a non-fiction essay based book, it is surprisingly readable and full of interesting and understandable examples, which makes this book stand out from the hundreds of others similar in theme, crammed with illegible text and unfathomable references. A great example from the book was the Communist Chinese’s’ use of history; they tried to eradicate every single piece evidence of a time before communism in the country, including priceless artefacts, and rewrite the past to be used for their own means. Many people brought up in the Chinese education system have never once questioned their textbooks, the history of their country that had been fabricated from someone’s mind in an office. The words from their teachers that settled like dust in their minds after a long day at school were, and still are, taken as complete truth. The Uses and Abuses of History teaches you that rewriting the past to suit your own means is easier than you think, and more common in our lives than you’d expect, whether in terms of a politician vying to elevate their popularity, or a simple blunder made by an uninformed amateur historian.

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Not exactly a fast-paced action novel, nor one bursting with intricate characters (although the public figures referred to here are illustrious,) but if you’re willing to read a book about history, then this may as well be this one. After all, what is the point in history?

Have you read this book- what did you think of it? What’s your favourite historical novel? How close to the truth  do you think historical novels should be? Comment your thoughts below!

Magnificent Desolation by Buzz Aldrin

Moonwalker. Innovator. Alcoholic.

A brutally honest autobiography of Aldrin’s life, reflecting on not only the stellar parts of his career, but the parts which have shrouded him in despair and embarrassment.

Many Americans view Buzz Aldrin as a national icon; a hero. Part of Apollo 11, the space mission which cemented him in history as the second man to ever walk on the Moon, Aldrin certainly is extraordinary. But there are other sections of his life that define him, too. Like when he was a fighter pilot in the Korean war, an author of novels or when he spent most his days slumped beneath bedsheets, due to the overwhelming depression he suffered. Most people aren’t aware of this side, and Magnificent Desolation explains what precisely Aldrin went through following his Moon Landing; it turns out that the physical side effects were the least of his worries, and that he was psychologically underprepared for the fame that would ensue.

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This book, despite being co-written by Ken Abraham, was definitely written by Aldrin. The words had bitter edges on certain topics (like when discussing his failures in his post-astronaut military career, or when discussing conspiracy theorists) and at other times would appear as if he was desperately trying to seem complementary, as if through the publication of this book he was wary of any outstanding offences he could cause.

Also, occasionally Aldrin would start to build up an event as if it had massive significance in the grand scheme of his life, and as a reader I would wonder what this event would foreshadow. More often than not it turned out to be completely irrelevant and not tie into anything else in the book:

“One overly zealous reporter planted himself in front of our car, refused to budge while snapping photos of me through the windshield. In exasperation, I raised my hand and gave him the finger. As soon as I saw the flash go off, I knew that I had made a gigantic mistake. When we got back to the hotel, my first call was to the attache at the embassy to see if he could quash the picture. He must have successful, because the photo never showed up”

It’s just utterly frustrating. If it turned out that the image had been leaked and had started to give Aldrin an awful reputation which affected his speaking career, then it would have been understandable. But nothing came of it- so why waste a paragraph mentioning  an irrelevant event that is not tied onto anything else in the book? This happened so many times throughout and frankly I found myself exasperated.

What I did enjoy though was when Aldrin started to discuss how in his later career he continued to develop ideas for space exploration. His words sounded so resolute and hopeful for the future- how by 2030 we should have people living on Mars, and his grand plans for a Mars Shuttle System. Above all I found that part fascinating, because it offered me an insight into the future of space. He spoke a lot about space tourism too; it seems like a plausible concept and he discusses it at length because he had devoted plenty of time to ensuring that it became as intrinsic to the American economy as ordinary tourism. We’re not quite there yet, but time can only tell!

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I would recommend this autobiography to those  who have an interest in space history and astronauts, as it does not only offer a valuable insight to Aldrin’s life, but also into the future of space in our society. It is not a necessarily a relaxing read as most of the information is presented quite factually and straightforwardly, but nevertheless I’m glad I gave it go!

The Night Manager- John Le Carré

Observe Jonathan Pine, stage right, taking on the worst man in the world, in the BBC Production  a captivating spy thriller, set in the mid 20th century. Absorb the deliciously shady alliance between the secret arms community and the centres of intelligence around the world. Notice the man trying to stay afloat whilst everyone else drowns around him.

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Jonathan Pine is a night manager at an affluent hotel in Zurich, and just another rich man comes to stay the night. Of course, he has booked out only the majority of the hotel- the most expensive suites, (to accommodate his sweeping entourage,) and, naturally, has it all. The wealth, the slavering posse and the charm. But this man, Richard Onslow Roper, also has a secret arms trade to his name. Coordinating it from afar, he controls the entire enterprise and soon becomes a target for Jonathan Pine. Now, look behind Pine’s perfected smile, the rigid tie and suit. He is merely seeking refuge from his past at the hotel, with a history in the military and years of specialist spy training. Yes. Crucially, he isn’t a heroic man trying to take on the world. Come on, this is Le Carré, he is a bit more realistic than that- let’s give him some credit. Actually, whilst we’re at it, let’s also mention the girlfriend in. Roper has a girlfriend-Jed, about half his age (obviously)- and being that typical spy, women of all types are magically attracted to Pine, including Roper’s girlfriend. You understand how it comes to be problematic.

But that’s not the only thing which is problematic: for some reason, Le Carré cannot find a single interesting, empowering role for women in his novel. It is so male-centric, from the main figures in intelligence to Roper’s circle of friends. The only women that feature are various doting wives and a sprinkling of girlfriends of Pine’s. And the only things that they seem to be good at is all being mysteriously attracted to him, betraying their original boyfriends and beliefs in some form for him, and then being unceremoniously ditched as Pine has to flee to another corner of the world. Most notable of these is Jed, Roper’s/ Pine’s (yes…) girlfriend, who is a complete airhead. Even when she attempts to break free from her mould and display some signs of intelligence, Le Carré simply has to scold her for it…(spoiler alert) in the sense that she manages to break the lock on Roper’s office, and leaves a hair! Understandably, it is a useful way to demonstrate to the readers that she has been present there, but this merely demotes her in terms of our impression of her intelligienc. By leaving a trail, Jed is portrayed as more of a snooping girlfriend and less the inquisitive spy, which is accurate enough but regardless does her no favours. Wait! Excuse me, there is actually a half-hearted attempt at equality in the secret circles: a woman who is depicted more like a teddy bear than anything else: she’s known as Darling Katie, and no, it is not ironic. This book may have been published in 1993, but attitudes towards women’s role in society hasn’t changed that much.

The way the antagonist, Roper, is presented is unusual, because not only does he have flaws, such as he is an egomaniac and has a massive arms/ drugs business… but Le Carré has cleverly given him positive characteristics, so that as a reader in a way you can sympathise with him. Not to such the extent that when he eventually is tossed by the ankles in the volcano (this doesn’t actually happen), that you feel remorse, but enough so that there is a hesitation. Roper is almost ignorant. Because we all know villains are self-titled, they don’t believe they are committing evil, and the same applies to Roper. He simply sees his “profession” as a competitive way of living. (Not sure how sympathetic one can be tho
ugh, having said that, considering all the murder and gore that’s involved.)

The novel was sluggish initially, with the first few hundred pages a chore to read. There was concentrated, precise language used, so it was always slightly a struggle to settle into at the end of a long day, but nevertheless, by the time we got to page 350, I felt like I was getting into it. You know what they say- better late than never. In this sense, it was similar to Catch-22. (Never a compliment…) On the other hand, it was seamless by the end, and throughout there was a sticky atmosphere of tension which, when the action truly evolved, made it an impulsive read.

What did you think of the Night Manager? What is your favourite spy thriller this year? Have you seen the BBC Production too- how do they compare?

The Moth- Book of the Month November

You walk away from a conversation with friends. Shaking your head, marvelling at the bizarre cases of truth. How no one could possibly have made that up. Welcome to the Moth.

The Moth is a kind of event, where people stand up and recount true hilarious, heart-breaking or horrifying stories on the stage. And, standing alone on the stage, clutching only their memories and a mic in their hands, they all have a personal touch. The Moth as a novel is no different: it is merely a compilation of 50 of the best short stories that have been told. Originally, The Moth was created to mimic that feeling of story-telling around the campfire, as your words pour out of you whilst everyone else is leaning in, the flames’ shadows flickering on your face. There is a deep sense of satisfaction rooted in sharing stories; after all we’ve been doing it for most of our history, and just because we have superior technology doesn’t mean this art should fade away: that’s why it is called The Moth; it reflects the fact that humans are attracted to stories like moths to a light, and maybe it is our light; our escape from reality.

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And, although it’s in the written word, this has still been conveyed into the book. Each story has been copied from the speaker (because they’re all spoken on-stage, remember,) word for word. This is fantastic for us, readers, because it presents you with the genuine idiosyncrasies of their voices. You feel like they’re standing over their shoulder, whispering into your ear, and you truly get a framework for their character. People speak differently depending on their upbringing. You know that. So you will understand how frustrating it is when all the characters in a book sound the same; well, all I can say is that the Moth will provide relief in that respect.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys any form of a short story, because there is a wide variation in the topics covered, so you’re bound to find something that appeals to you. Each one is a convenient length so that normally you can read it in one sitting, but usually I’m so enthralled by the previous tale I am driven to discover the next one, and see where it leads me! The best thing about The Moth is that there are so many topics covered. It isn’t simply about travelling, or love, or that funny thing Jeff said yesterday. There are magnificent stories, such as the one about the man who saved Mother Teresa’s life, or optimistic ones, like the woman testing out life with a new prosthetic limb, or harrowing stories about a scientist and his relationship with his monkey used in experiments. It evoked so many emotions with me- so if you’re looking for an uplifting read or a challenging one, then look no further.