Hortense and the Shadow by Lauren and Natalia O’Hara – Book Review – A Traditionally-Styled Dark Fairy Tale for Young Children

Hortense and the Shadow Cover

Deeper in to the Dark Woods…

Through the dark and wolfish woods,
through the white and silent snow

A fairy tale drenched in folklore and doused in tradition’s charm, Hortense and the Shadow is a story book for younger children which has an edgy, sinister appeal that – like all truly great children’s books – will open the door to questions and conversations long after the tale is told. The darker aspects are short and fairly subtle – not enough to really frighten, but enough to keep children fascinated, and enough to make them think a bit harder about what is troubling Hortense.

The tale and the illustrations echo old Slavic fairy tales. On their website, the authors – two sisters, Lauren and Natalia O’Hara, describe it as, “a dark fairy tale, inspired by the stories our Polish grandma told on snowy nights.”

The appeal of children’s books – the old fairy tales; the ones we remember even more darkly as adults: the tales that, half-remembered at bedtime, make us shiver and snuggle a little further under the warm blankets and turn the night light on to stop the dark encroaching – is the layers of story and reality, blended with just the right amounts of foreboding, and then joyous relief when the monsters are vanquished.

And this tale has many layers, and will bear many retellings.

Hortense is a little girl who is angry and afraid of her own shadow, which at first is illustrated as something of a creature feature, always at the edges of Hortense’s life, looming long and frightening. She manages to overcome the shadow by sheer cunning wit and quick thinking, trapping it outside the window and then watching it flee until she is free of its thrall.

But then bad men arrive – bandits who laugh at her fear, and would do harm to Hortense, and the shadow comes to the rescue, and she realises that the shadow is the one who gives her the darker side that saves her.

A neat little capstone to the story is the ‘reveal’ that everything that made Hortense afraid of the shadow are the qualities that she herself also possesses sometimes – and that that is all right, because now Hortense has made friends with her shadow half.

Hortense and the Shadow is a gorgeously illustrated, thought-inspiring book for winter evenings, and is one of those young children’s books that the grown-up reading the story will get just as much out of as the children listening.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.

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The Crow Road: 25thAnniversaryEdition, by Iain Banks

The Crow Road 25th Anniversary Edition Cover ImageI read this through tears. Free-flowing, noisy, bleary, snotty tears. Tears for Iain Banks, who will now never write another glorious masterpiece of a book. Tears for me, and the girl I once was – the girl who read all of his books the first time around. The girl in the cold flat with no central heating and never any tea bags, who kept warm on the promise of the future, in the pub on the corner.

And tears for grandmother, of course, because she exploded.

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

I love The Crow Road now as much as I did when I first read it, when it was published in 1992.

Reading Iain Banks’ writing is like slipping into a warm, softly-scented bubble bath, or drinking a mug of hot chocolate by the fire on an icy-cold snowy night. Seriously, I could read and re-read his books forever. Iain Banks is my desert island author.

The Crow Road is a Scottish Bildungsroman about young protagonist, Prentice, finding his way through life with the help of sex and drugs, and stumbling into a dark family mystery, and setting out on the ultimate adult’s adventures in death. ‘The Crow Road’ as an expression is a metaphor for death, and death stalks the pages from the very beginning, when grandmother, Prentice tells us, exploded.

It’s a book about stories – the stories of Prentice and his family, the opaque mystery of his Uncle, who has disappeared, leaving only some papers lying around for Prentice to obsess over.

What strikes me most, when I’ve come to re-read this most gorgeous book, is the stark black humour that had me choking over my hot chocolate, and the warmth of the writing: reading about the family and its mysteries and secrets is to live with them for a while, and though there have been many, many fabulous books in the intervening twenty-five years, reading The Crow Road again put me back in a place where reading, and feeling part of the book itself, part of the lives of the characters, was, and is, the centre of everything.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

A Horse Walks into a Bar, by David Grossman – translated by Jessica Cohen

A Horse Walks into a Bar Cover ImageDov is an angry man blazing with scorn. So why did he become a comedian? And why has he invited, to his performance in a small, grotty bar in Netanya, a school acquaintance who also happens to have grown up to become a judge? And why, instead of giving his audience a show of stand-up comedy, does he begin to tell them the grimmest version of his unremittingly grim life story? And why on earth does he not stop when they begin to walk out?

There are no easy answers. Dov is Dov because of a remarkably complex line of people, actions (and non-actions), and events, which all begin in his childhood, when his holocaust-traumatised mother was unable to raise so much as a smile or a word for her child.

A Horse Walks into a Bar is not a pleasant read, but it is darkly, sinisterly pregnant with ‘what-ifs’ and near misses, and nearlys, barelys, and almosts. Dov and his life story are haunting: months after I first read the novel, I’m still thinking and worrying about him, and especially about the child he once was, and wondering what happened after I closed the cover of the book, which feels like it poured unhindered and almost without conscious thought from Grossman in one long sleepless fortnight of whiskey and regret.

To say I loved this book would be an understatement. I shrank from every word of it, and longed to put it down and never think of it, or Dov, again. But I had to know. Despite the grimness, and despite Dov’s wretched life and tortured soul, and despite the hopeless abyss that Dov keeps throwing himself into over and over again, I wanted to know more about the luckless comedian and the strange and subtle drama he has set up by inviting his former childhood friend to the worst and best performance of his life.

Grossman’s writing is brilliant, and whether you love or loathe the book (I did both, at the same time, and I still have cognitive dissonance from it), you will feel every dank and sweaty moment of Dov’s performance, and you will cringe and shudder with the audience as Dov goes too far over and over again. It is performance art of shock-jock calibre, with a much deeper, darker heart.

Book sourse: bought for myself

Of Women: In the 21st Century, by Shami Chakrabarti

Of Women: In the 21st Century by Shami Chakrabarti cover imageOf Women: In the 21st Century, by Shami Chakrabarti, published just over a week ago, argues that the fight for women’s rights is the fight for all our rights, men or women, girls or boys. It warns of the urgent, global need to recognise a woman’s right – any woman, every woman – to live an unmolested life equal in quality to, and as rich in opportunities, as that of her male counterpart. She argues that the fight for women’s rights is the fight for everyone’s rights because everyone, male or female is born to a woman, and if a mother is denied her right to a life free from violence, a life with healthcare, education, housing and social opportunities, then the chances are high that her children will be denied these things too, and especially in their important formative years.

It’s easy to think that in the UK a least, the big fights are long over, and that we can all live fairly peacefully and happily ever after. Women have had voting rights for a century; women are just as entitled to own property; women are in jobs of political power, of academic prowess, and of corporate weight. In fact, sometimes it’s easy to believe, or at least hope, that with all the progress made in the last century, we can finally take a well-deserved rest on our laurels before we tidy up the loose ends of women’s healthcare, childcare, equal pay, and real and perceived threats of violence.

But if we believe this, Chakrabarti urges, we need to take a closer look, and a more global one.

Chakrabarti’s book is a serious, scholarly and expansive one. It is littered liberally with generous mentions of great feminist writers and their works, and it approaches each sector of feminist thinking in a clear and sober but heartfelt way. She examines a woman’s lot from a global perspective, and the horrors faced by our fellow female human beings who live in less wealthy, progressive and enlightened countries, where female children are killed outright or through wilful neglect by one method or another without consequence, and where girls’ bodies are routinely slashed, sliced, and carved up in the name of tradition. It is heavy-going material at times, often frightening and dark. But Chakrabarti also highlights projects and drivers of change and hope – and in this sphere, it is the less wealthy countries, the countries where women’s rights are woefully absent, that some imaginative and effective projects and initiatives are taking place:

[I]n places like Kyrgystan in the eastern reaches of the former Soviet Union […] twenty-year old student volunteers have been found to be the most effective communicators to talk to fourteen and fifteen year olds about pregnancy, STIs, contraception and sexuality.

[…] Education as a Vaccine (EVA) works in Nigeria … [where it] created an anonymous question and answer service delivered via telephone, text message, email and social media in order to provide young people with a means of discussing and learning about sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. The service has proved incredibly popular with users ranging between the ages of ten and thirty.

 

Chakrabarti’s book differs from much mainstream feminism: the solutions she presents are not exclusively aimed at women, nor solely for the betterment of women’s lives. She argues that in changing attitudes and encouraging responsibility, education, thought, discussion, and respect, both men and women will benefit. In fact, much of the book is concerned with an achievable vision of a fairer and more comfortable society for all its members. This outline is necessarily a rough diamond rather than a polished fait accompli – the book is one of eye-opening facts and ideas, not a policy document or manifesto – but it succeeds in getting across the reasons why it is worth pursuing attitudinal shifts, and how we might go about kick-starting change and promoting its momentum. Positive action is high on her list of methods, along with greater enforcement of already existing laws (such as those around equal pay), and encouraging people’s inclusive contribution to their own society. These are not new ideas, but they are ones worth repeating until they take firm hold – and Chakrabarti’s writing is clear and persuasive enough to perhaps persuade a few more people that inclusivity, tolerance and respect brings tangible rewards.

Of Women is as much about social evils for both men and women, as it is about social evils perpetrated solely on women. She is wholly inclusive: what affects women affects everyone – plummeting levels of affordable homes, fit for purpose homes, social housing, unemployment, poverty, the wealth gap, inadequate education opportunities, social funding neglect that creates masses of homeless people and back to which can be traced the Grenfell tower block disaster. She is clear that many of the problems affecting women and girls so too affect men and boys, though in different ways that require different, but concerted actions – which problems ultimately cause even greater and more entrenched societal problems. Chakrabarti states what should be obvious even in a money obsessed world – if the basic needs of a large portion of the population are neglected and left unmet, disaffection spreads, which is the blue touchpaper for social unrest. Chakrabarti’s answer to the issue is forging a society that first gives high quality educational opportunities to all its people, and ensures that the basic needs of food, adequate housing, and social opportunities are met.

Of Women is thoroughly researched and minutely observed – in fact Chakrabarti has lived many of the ideas in this book through her work with Liberty, an advocacy group promoting civil liberties and human rights, for which she was the director for thirteen years. Though it is quite academic in parts, it will appeal to anyone who is intelligently interested in the casual daily erosion of the self-respect and core identity of billions of people simply because they were born into an unlucky sex.

Books about the rights of, and abuses against women are, of course, often preaching to the converted. Misogynists are unlikely to pick up and read this book with an open and curious mind, and those who have the power to effect change are equally unlikely to simply do so upon recommendation, even when that recommendation comes from someone articulate, educated and politically experienced. But change is effected by the weight of opinion, and Of Women: in the 21st Century is a welcome and well-argued addition to the popular debate.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher

Heather The Totality by Matthew Weiner – Tense, Deadpan and Hypnotic

Heather The Totality CoverTense and deadpan in God’s-eye journalistic style, Heather, The Totality is a spare and sparse hypnotic story about people tumbling helplessly towards irrevocable breakdown. The storytelling is almost cold and distant as it rummages through the characters’ lives, past and present, but the view of the characters is close-up and personal, delving into their most private thoughts, real and perceived.

I admit that I couldn’t put this down for love or money (or even sleep) once I’d started, its pacey telling pulled me in and wouldn’t let go. I started and finished it in the same evening, and stayed up till the small hours to find out what happens in its satisfying, if bleak, denouement.

Mark and Karen Breakstone have produced, by sheer luck, a pleasant daughter, Heather, whose sheltered and comfortable life as the centre of her devoted, doting parents’ affections has moulded her into someone quite special; her carefree, luxurious existence has endowed her with the ability to empathise with other people without judgement, and to imbue her, in adolescence, with a desire to help those less fortunate than herself and her parents – which, in her quite privileged place in the social and economic hierarchy of New York, is almost everyone.

But her sunny disposition and youthful beauty draws the attention of more sinister people, against whose covetousness of her attractiveness and good fortune she is unprepared, having lived in the gilded and often suffocating cage of her parents’ affections all her life.

Heather The Totality is a fairly short novel, at 144 pages, but it is absolutely perfectly formed, and its fast pace and sinister, unblinking, impassive irony gives a deceptive weight to deeper issues of parenting, rich-poor divide, opportunities and sheer bloody good – and bad – fortune. Weiner has crafted a novel that is far more than a simple tale of family life, and examines in an uncomfortable light the polar ends of the spectrum of fortune and misfortune, and the tragedy that ensues from such divides.

Many thanks to the publisher, Canongate, for a review copy of Heather, The Totality via NetGalley

The Future Won’t Be Long, by Jarett Kobek

The star of the book is New York City and its gritty, sprawling, drugged-out, insane pop culture between 1986 and 1996. Kobek charts the changes in the city in that 10 years through the eyes of two of its incoming residents, Baby, a young, gay former farmhand from Wisconsin, and Adeline, a wealthy student from LA.

I really enjoyed this book – Kobek’s New York is the dark underbelly I fantasised about as a teenager listening to Lou Reed albums, though no doubt if I’d ever actually managed to get there I would have been murdered on principal at the airport, having about as much nous as a day-old kitten.

The novel opens with Baby coming to New York after the death of his parents, hoping to stay with an acquaintance from high school, which plan falls apart when he is robbed at the junkie-infested squat his friend lives in, and he latches gratefully on to Adeline instead. The stories of the two protagonists aren’t by themselves very compelling – there’s too much luck and coincidence in their lives, which removes any tension, and they’re just a bit too Art Student to connect with, pontificating at affected length on the meaning and direction of everything from the movies they watch to the comics they read, whilst the life of the city rolls on oblivious.

But Baby and Adeline are just our guides to the main feature, the club land of the city and the disparate junkies who thrive in it. Every aspect of the confusing, technicolour lives of NYC’s inhabitants is touched on – sex, drugs, bands, books, artists, hedonism, chaos, privilege, poverty, the club scene, satanic pot dealers, university, gay culture, the tragedy of AIDS, are all laid bare and explored, along with many, often drug-and-psychosis-fuelled, (real-life) murders.

Although the book is firmly in fictional novel territory, many of the events and people in it are real, and Googling them throws up any number of fascinating news stories, Wiki articles, conspiracy theories and odd little ancient forum threads. Kobek puts all of these together in a gonzo-journalistic mix that makes a strange and wonderful moment-in-time history book.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher

The Beauties by Anton Chekhov, Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater

The Beauties coverA brand new translation of short stories by the master of life’s moments, Anton Chekhov. I was positively drooling when I saw this, because I’ve read his short stories in a scattergun kind of way, here and there, reading a couple at random when the time and fancy takes me.

The selection of stories is spot-on. I’d read a couple of the stories before, in other translations, but most were new to me – and the ones I’d already come across were no great chore to re-read.

The translation is flowing, and Nicholas Pasternak Slater’s experienced, light hand makes the works very readable. The translation in Pushkin Press’s The Beauties has subtle tone and depth, catching an atmosphere around the characters that is sometimes a little dulled around the edges in some older translations; this is key, for me, in reading Chekhov, as he deals so much in the momentary glimpses of deeply felt experiences, and his small snapshots of fleeting events are brought to life by emotions, and the associations the feelings light up in the characters’ thoughts.

A particularly evocative passage appears in the first, titular story, The Beauties, where is explored the ethereal links between love, beauty, the inevitability of aging and death, and the projections of the beholder:

His raddled, flabby, unpleasantly podgy face, worn out by sleepless nights and jolting trains, wore an expression of tenderness and profound sadness, as if in that girl he could see his own youth, happiness, sobriety, purity, his wife and children; as if he was full of regret, and felt with his whole being that this girl was not his, and that he, aged before his time, ungainly and fat-faced, was as far removed from the ordinary, human happiness of us passengers as he was from the sky above.

If I have any small grumble, it is what is missing from the book: a few words before or after each tale to bring some insight would have been welcome, and perhaps an introduction at the front of the book about why these particular stories were chosen, and what thread brought them together in the editor’s selection.

But all in all the book is fabulous, thoroughly enjoyable, and perfect for dipping into for short, thoughtful, and evocative reads.

Thank you to the publisher for providing me with a copy for review.

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, by Margaret Willes, Yale University Press

The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn CoverA fabulously substantial and readable work that roots out the most interesting private and public aspects of two of the foremost diarists of the seventeenth century, The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn is a fascinating book about the murky world of the Restoration period, which, at over three centuries in our past shows that some surprisingly modern issues were considered by the period’s men and women of letters: John Evelyn, for instance, was horrified by the noise and pollution in London, and wrote about it in his pamphlet Fumifugium, in which he recommends planting more sweet-smelling trees to overcome the foul stench of the coal smoke.

Willes begins with a background on the two men, combined with a history of the period they were writing in and of. Both Evelyn and Pepys were fully involved, in one way or another, in the world of the seventeenth century, and they had opposing backgrounds and views: Evelyn came from a wealthy family, where Pepys’ father was a ‘tailor to the legal community’ – not a family of abject poverty, but nonetheless one that saw its fair share of financial and social struggles. On the execution of Charles I, the distinction in the views of the two is clear. Of the event, Evelyn writes that the execution, “struck me with such horror that I kept the day of his Martyrdom a fast, & would not be present, at that execrable wickednesse”, whereas after attending the execution, Pepys “returned to school and told his friends that if he had to preach a sermon on the King, it would be ‘The memory of the wicked shall rot’.”

But despite their differences in views and backgrounds, the two men were friends, finding common ground in their love of knowledge and irrepressible curiosity.

The diarists’ observations throw a chilling eyewitness light onto events such as the Great Plague of London: “June 1665 was very hot, and Pepys noted in Drury Lane how he saw ‘two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw'”; while Evelyn “noted ‘all along the Citty & suburbs … a dismal passage & dangerous, to see so many Cofines exposed in the streetes & the streete thin of people, the shops shut up, & all in mournefull silence, as not knowing whose turne might be next'”. Pepys and Evelyn also witnessed the Great Fire of London, in the year following the Great Plague, and both vividly diarise also that event.

No less interesting than accounts of these tragedies of history are the lives of the men themselves – the very personal accounts of men who were born almost four centuries ago. Often, personal histories must be constructed using scraps of evidence that gives an incomplete and unsatisfying picture of people’s lives (though future historians may yet have a field day with the Internet and Social Media), but in the cases of Pepys and Evelyn, we have not just each man’s own personal day-to-day account of his life and thoughts, but that of his close friend, giving a second perspective on the times, and even on the men themselves. Willes puts this to good use in part two of the book, which delves into the private lives of Pepys and Evelyn.

Pepys had difficult in-laws: his wife Elizabeth’s father was, in the words of Balthazar, Elizabeth’s brother, “‘Full of Wheemesis’ – schemes to make money through inventions such as a machine for perpetual motion, and taking out patents for the perennial problem of curing smoky chimneys”. Of Balthazar himself, Pepys’ biographer wrote that if he had not existed “‘only Dickens could have invented him'”, and long after the connector between the two men, Elizabeth Pepys, was dead, Balthazar continued to plague Pepys for money and favours. Both men’s lives were full of curious, colourful characters, from extended family members like Balthazar, to the servants in Pepys’ life whom he befriended and in many instances cared for, even remembering particular favourites in his will.

Domestic intrigue, affairs, crises and grief dogged the marriages of both men, and though she remains exact and scholarly, Willes also writes about the personal lives of Pepys and Evelyn with empathy, noting upon the Evelyns’ loss of three of their children, that “It has been suggested that parents in seventeenth-century England were inured to the sudden death of their children, but the outpouring of grief from both Mary and John give the lie to this.”

The third and final part of the book digs deep into what is probably the very reason for their many years of close friendship – their interests, including a fascination with science and their involvement in the nascent Royal Society. Pepys was a sociable man who seemed to have a knack for discovering the most interesting – and prescient – people, such as William Petty, a self-educated Anatomy Professor and Cromwell’s physician-general, among other things, who counted among his considerations “a prototype National Health Service”, and “proposals of a decimal coinage”.

The two men’s interests took in music – Pepys was a quite accomplished musician, but Evelyn could not find any real talent in this area despite taking lessons and being a keen listener of other people’s musicianship; the theatre; horticulture, an area in which Evelyn excelled, and for which he had a deep love, which took in the consideration, in Acetaria, Evelyn’s book on salads, that “vegetables were a healthy addition to the diet”.

With a chapter on the new beverages in Seventeenth century London of coffee, tea, and chocolate (in order of popularity), and the new coffee houses that began to spring up in the 1650s, and a chapter on the fashion of the time, which was extending to incorporate exotic clothes and, as an aside, even more exotic pets (Pepys mentions that he has a pet monkey in his diary), Willles covers pretty much all the changes in taste and fashions that took place in the lives of Londoners in the seventeenth century, including, of course, the cabinets of curiosities, after which the design of which Willes’ own book is modelled. And Evelyn and Pepys enjoyed them all to the full.

The final chapter is devoted to Evelyn’s and Pepys mutual love of books. Both had large libraries and numbered their books in the thousands. Whilst Evelyn’s collection is now spread across several collections, including the British Library, since it was sold off in the late 1970s, Pepys library is housed intact at Magdalene College, Cambridge University.

Many thanks to Netgalley and the publisher, Yale, for providing me with a review copy.

The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley

The Loney book coverAn eerie and atmospheric novel that made me shiver on a long cold stormy night and kept me up reading until hours past midnight, unable to put it aside until I had reached the very end and squeezed every last drop of gothic mystery and delicious unease from it.

Our narrator begins by describing his brother Hanny, now a successful author and church minister with a wife and family. But things were not always so pleasant, it seems, and something sinister and newsworthy has happened in Coldbarrow; something that is connected to events that took place thirty or more years ago.

Coldbarrow is a desolate coastal spot in the north of England, where, as children, our narrator and his brother were taken by their mother on church pilgrimages to a shrine – their mother’s attempt to cure by faith and obscure Catholic ritual Hanny’s condition: as a child he was mute and suffered from a learning disability severe enough that he remained a child even as he grew into a young man, and was schooled in a special residential facility.

We know our narrator only as ‘Tonto’, a nickname given to him by the new parish priest Father Bernard, a young, down-to-earth and kindly man who has been transplanted from a troubled Belfast parish to replace the late Father Wilfred, a stern and often mean elderly old-school priest.

Beautiful descriptions abound of the desolate 1970s Coldbarrow, a town on the Lancashire coast where people have clung to the old ways and superstitions and which has an air of long abandonment steeped into it:

The evidence of old industry was everywhere: breakwaters had been mashed to gravel by storms, jetties abandoned in the sludge and all that remained of the old causeway to Coldbarrow was a line of rotten black posts that gradually disappeared under the mud. And there were other, more mysterious structures – remnants of jerry-built shacks where they had once gutted mackerel for the markets inland, beacons with rusting fire-braces, the stump of a wooden lighthouse on the headland that had guided sailors and shepherds through the fickle shift of the sands.

Events are shrouded in darkness and shadow, made all the stranger as the focus shifts between the unnerving but often familiar Catholic superstitions of the family, and the more ancient pagan rituals that are swirling around them, half-seen and unknowable.

The characters are vivid and rounded – I felt that I knew them as well as I know my own family, and understood their motivations for their often appalling, but also often self-sacrificing actions.

The Loney is by turns a gentle novel of two brothers with a closer-than-close bond, who have an instinct for the other’s needs; a frightening look at the abuses perpetrated in the name of belief and love; and, most of all, a compulsive and atmospheric novel of deep, unknowable mysteries.

Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep Book Cover ImageI don’t sleep well. I know, I know – join the queue. Getting to sleep isn’t a problem – I fall asleep as soon as I get into bed, often in less than ten minutes, but like many other people, I then wake up four-to-six hours later and can’t get back to sleep, so I’m awake, zombie-like, all day, every day, with occasional unwitting micro sleeps in meetings. It’s been like this for as long as I can remember, and I have never found cause nor cure. Frankly, I’m at the end of my slightly hallucinatory, and quite appallingly moody, tether.

So when I read a review of Walker’s book in The Guardian, I could have punched the air in delight – except I’m not that person, and I am shagged from sleep deprivation. Air-punching is for the well-rested.

Walker himself is a neuroscientist deeply involved in research on sleep – and it is the strange and quirky research that makes the book so hypnotically fascinating. Before long, I understood what a sleep spindle is, and Walker’s description of this particular feature of healthy sleep is quite stunning; and I also found alternative causes of why coffee may be messing up my sleep so badly – heads-up: it’s not just the amount of caffeine blocking up the adenosine receptors, so if you, like me, try to time your coffee consumption and bedtime around caffeine amount and half-life, you might have a rethink when Walker points out that if you wake up too early and immediately start the day with a coffee, the jolt may encourage your circadian rhythm to reset to the too-early start time, thus causing erratic sleep that night even if the adenosine receptors are sufficiently clear of caffeine by bedtime.

There are seemingly endless ways to sabotage a good night’s sleep – or have it sabotaged for you by various, sometimes terrifying, disorders: I thought I had it bad trying to get through the days on fewer than half a dozen hours sleep, but the story of a man suffering from Fatal Familial Insomnia rather put that into perspective and showed me to be utterly well-rested by comparison; and there are equally numerous health reasons to try to overcome the problems – and, with some neuroscientific help and inspiration, lots of proposed ways of beating the enemies of a good night’s rest, some of which – both enemies and solutions – I’d never even thought of.

Walker is fascinated by and enthusiastic about sleep, and it’s contagious. From the astonishing sleeping abilities of birds and sea mammals, to the developmental issues that can be caused in children and adolescents by not getting a decent night’s shut-eye, it’s a revelation; and the nightmare health consequences Walker presents – from mental health problems to flu to heart attack to cancer – had me reaching for my jammies, determined to try to catch up on all those lost hours of slumber, even though the science suggests that this is, sadly, impossible.

However, although my initial excitement first turned to hope that herein may lie the answer to my sleep issues, this hope crumbled a little. I was not, even in the early chapters, altogether convinced by much of the tone, nor some of the arguments; the book is very much US-orientated, pointing to US websites (National Sleep Foundation), and using US high school start times – the average of which, according to the CDC website, is 08:03, in contrast to around a quarter to nine in the UK. At times, there’s more than a whiff of American infomercials: Come on! Let’s do this! We can do it! I did it and lost 10lb/got a promotion/could afford to buy my dream house, and we’ll all live longer, fitter, happier, slimmer, wealthier lives! But the arguments, for me, collapse in the final 20% of the book, which is given over to Walker’s dreaming of an ideal sleep-obsessed society wherein we all live in houses and work in offices kitted out with technology geared towards helping us sleep – with smart lighting in every office cubicle that dims and brightens according to individual circadian rhythms, and a wild privacy-invading notion that our sleep times be fed into a central health database in order to judge when best we should get our flu jabs – for the good of society, of course (but who will watch the watchmen that will have unprecedented access to our private data? And will our failure to develop a regular sleep pattern be used against us by our workplace, which may then chastise us for irregular sleep and blame it, and us, for any performance blips, and by our doctors who will then use it as an excuse to patient-blame and deny us treatment for health concerns on the basis that it’s our own fault?) As much as I admire Walker’s attempts to fix the problems of society, the actual evidence, as opposed to theory, is slim that tackling sleep issues is a major part of the solution.

I was also a bit disappointed at the very end (right after the ‘Other customers also bought…’ page on my Kindle), when Walker lists his 12 tips for good sleep – which are near-identical to the many articles that are tossed onto the Internet. The tips include limiting caffeine, limiting alcohol, and not having nicotine, alongside sleeping in a cool, dark bedroom sans gadgets, getting regular exercise, and going to bed and waking up at the same time each day – in other words, living a simple and healthy life, which – whether it improves sleep or not – would likely improve some health markers regardless. When I reached these twelve tips, I felt that Walker had rather buried the lead, and had he put these at the start of the book, I might have saved myself some time. For most of us, who live moderate lives, drinking and smoking moderately or not at all, and exercising regularly, changing our moderate habits and trying total abstention and walking a few extra miles a day has little or no effect on either our sleeping patterns or our health – we know this because we all experiment on ourselves every day, sometimes obsessively when we get a new shiny Fitbit or Garmin or Apple Watch – tweaking a little here and there depending on what our wrist-worn gurus tell us about ourselves – and we all have largely the same problems year in, year out.

Why We Sleep is fascinating and well worth a read for the scientific theories and research Walker goes into in some depth, but for the sleep-deprived looking for help, there is, in the end, not much more than simple sleep hygiene (which, be honest, if it worked, a quick Google search would have turned us all into sleeping beauties long ago) and, in the last 20% of the book, a strident insistence that society be entirely rearranged on the basis of theories around sleep.