Amit Katwala – “The Athletic Brain” and some book confessions #20BooksOfSummer #amreading


I’ve managed to read the second book in my #20BooksOfSummer challenge, even though I’m slightly frantically alternating challenge books and other stuff I need to read and review for Shiny and NetGalley. A little bit of acquiring has gone on, too (oops, not oops) with two books from different publishers coming in for Shiny review and one being bought yesterday at a talk and book signing (rude not to, right?). But first let’s have a look at this book, enticingly subtitled “How Neuroscience is Revolutionising Sport and Can Help You Perform Better”, superimposed on a graphic of a running track. Oh – you’ll notice from the date that I’m JUST keeping to a year’s gap between acquisition and reading. I’m going to say that there will be a jump forward in that, because I know how “good” I usually am in the late summer, autumn, but we’ll have to see, won’t we …

Amit Katwala – “The Athletic Brain”

(12 June 2017)

I apparently ordered this one because someone mentioned it in the Runners’ Bookshelf Facebook group I’m in (although I can’t now find that mention of it). It’s written in an informal and accessible style and is obviously a work that has grown out of a great interest of the author’s; it’s just a bit of a shame that, for me, it overlapped a bit too much with other books I’ve read fairly recently, most notably Matthew Syed’s “Bounce”. He credits that very book in the bibliography and notes, so I’m in no way suggesting anything nefarious, it’s just that something must have been in the water and lots of similar research came out and got mulled over and informed these two books and probably others.

So the talking about training versus talent, and flow and the unconscious, automatic responses and movements that come with hours of practice was all stuff I kind of knew about already – however, nicely done and with good reference to a wide variety of both academic sources and interviews Katwala has done as a sports journalist. As well as the important sections on the role of brain research on visual acuity and the ability to make decisions rapidly through a variety of tools, and the way in which sports clubs of various kinds are using these techniques to train their athletes to do better, there’s also quite a lot about scouting, risk-taking and brain injuries, which, while important and interesting, make the book feel a little disjointed. But again, the research and synthesis is done really well.

I particularly like the author’s handiness with an analogue: for example, and there are lots of examples, the allocation of neural resources is described as being

on the general principle of ‘use it or lose it’, like overlapping games of cricket in a crowded public park.

and w meet some interesting and different people during the book, like the snowboarder, Billy Morgan.

Notwithstanding the running track on the front cover, there’s not that much for the runner here, as visual acuity and fast decision-making are more important in team sports or ones with an opponent. For our rugby, football and tennis playing friends, the most important things seem to be keep flexible, train your peripheral vision and have a go at focusing your attention more on, for example, the hoop in basketball before you shoot for the goal. The main bit about runners, apart from some interesting stuff about VO2 max capacity in twin studies and grit in general is about resilience and keeping going, with a suggestion that you train when tired (for example doing your long run after a day at work). I know that I used that tactic during my winter training for my last marathon and it worked well, so was pleased about that.

So, the author seems really nice and enthusiastic and has done a good work of research. I only felt a bit “meh” about this book because I’d read “Bounce” first. If I’d read them the other way around, I would have felt the other way around about them.

This was Book #2 in my 20BooksOfSummer challenge.

New in, first off my Shiny books. “Sacred Britannia”, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green and sent by Thames & Hudson, is about the clash and mixture of religions in Roman Britain. Sally Bayley’s “Girl With Dove” from William Collins has been popping up all over and was sent kindly along with another book, however I don’t feel I’m the best reviewer, so I’ve sent it along to one of the Shiny editors. And “King of the North Wind” by Claudia Gold is about Henry II. What do you know about him? Nor me – but I’m looking forward to finding out. Some beautiful books here and out in June and July so reviews coming relatively soon.

I was lucky enough to attend a talk and book signing by Blind Dave Heeley, the Black Country marathoner, ultrarunner, triathlete and all-round amazing and entertaining chap. I shared my story with him where I’ve seen him at so many races and cheered him on as he’s stormed past me that when I encountered him at the Road Relays earlier in the year, I assumed I knew him and greeted him with an “Orright, Dave,” as I ushered him down the funnel in my role as Official in Training. He said to give him a shove next time so he knows I know him. OK! Anyway, book purchased, massive guide dog patted, and here’s another good read (and his co-writer is listed on the front cover!).

I’ve just started reading “The Life and Times of Benjamin Zepahaniah” which is SO GOOD. I’m going to be reviewing it here and for Shiny, as it’s one of those books I think I will have a personal and a more academic reaction to. Oh, but it’s good. So entertainingly and honestly written. The first words? “I hate autobiographies” …


Book review – William Sitwell – “Eggs or Anarchy” #20BooksOfSummer @amreading


So my first #20BooksOfSummer book is done and dusted, and I’m quite relieved, as I do have a bit of a reading schedule going on this summer! I have a few review books on their way and some more NetGalley wins. So I think I’m going to alternate 20Books books and non-20Books books for a bit and see how that goes. Gulp. Anyway, here’s Book 1.

William Sitwell – “Eggs or Anarchy”

(10 June 2017; The Works)

A biography of Fred Marquis, later Lord Woolton, covering his whole life but concentrating on his time as World War II Minister of Food. It’s full of fascinating details about how food supply and rationing worked from the controlling rather than consuming side, so acts as a good complement to all those social history books we read about coupons and queuing.

It turns out that Woolton’s enemy wasn’t only Hitler, but much closer to home; although he was appointed by Chamberlain, it was Churchill who was his boss for most of his time in the Ministry, and Churchill assumed he was going to fail and also proved an annoyance in his dislike of going over details and his dislike, in fact, of rationing (I mean, no one likes it, obviously, but he was very against it, even when it was clearly the sensible thing to do). We also get lots of detail on the whole Ministry’s evacuation to Colwyn Bay (including a special extra railway halt for Lord Woolton to descend), and the Tube trains that delivered food supplies to the people sheltering in the underground bomb shelters. I also didn’t realise that people ate out a lot more than they did in peacetime, often at the British Restaurants that Lord Woolton invented and his wife, Maud, went around opening – all interesting stuff.

In other surprises, I had no idea that there was only one type of cheese that was allowed to be produced (Government Cheddar) until the end of rationing in 1954, which apparently set the indigenous cheese producers right back. Is this correct? The internment of “aliens” is of course better known, but I’d not really thought about the massive effect on hotels and restaurants, who often had Continental European maitre d’s and staff.

Simon and Karen will be pleased to note a cameo from Beverley Nichols, who was sent to interview Lord Woolton. Unfortunately, our hero didn’t get a very good impression of the writer (of novels, gardening books and mysteries, according to the author):

It’s amazing to see what poor specimens of mankind these popular writers are.

Apart from a few typos, this book was good and well-done, my only reservation being the slightly odd ordering of the end sections. The War finishes and Lord Woolton moves on, but then we get quite a lot about the health of the nation and sugar taxes now, plus a double epilogue covering the experiences of two shopkeepers during the War (which is very interesting), before we get back to the end of Lord Woolton’s life. This does feel a bit confusing in what is otherwise a competent book on a less well-known topic.

This was Book #1 in my 20 Books of Summer 2018.

True to my plan, I’m currently reading my Iris Murdoch readalong book, the (thankfully) very short, “The Italian Girl”, which is a cracking read so far. Then it’s on to “The Athletic Brain”. If you’re doing 20 Books, how are you getting on? If not, what are you up to instead?

State of the TBR June 2018 and #20BooksOfSummer TBR


Hooray, it’s that time of year when we all put our 20BooksOfSummer TBR piles together – I like to know where I am before I start taking the front of my TBR into it, so always save it up until the last minute to plan. First of all, though, here’s the current state of the TBR.

Of course, its magnificence is due to my book token spending spree the other week, and is absolutely FINE.

I’m currently reading Paul Theroux’s “Deep South”. After not enjoying many of the essays in his later book, I was approaching this with concern, but you know what? It’s BRILLIANT. It’s so good. He goes back to places, something he’s not really done before (OK, he did his “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star” trip, which retraced “Riding the Iron Rooster”, but this time it’s over the course of a year) and is humane, concerned and warm. It’s the only book I’m reading at the moment, but coming up next will be Iris Murdoch’s “The Italian Girl” for my #IMReadalong and the first book in my 20BooksOf Summer. Here’s the traditional start of my TBR, what’s coming next pic. Oh, and this is important, see how absolutely TINY the next Iris Murdoch is.

20 Books of Summer 2018

Run by the lovely Cathy at 746 Books every year (here‘s her introductory post), 20BooksOfSummer sees a whole load of us reading, well, 20 books from 1 June to 3 September every year. I’ve been taking part since 2015 (not always successfully) and you can see my master page, where I pull together my reviews and round-up here.

I’m being really quite ambitious this year. My PILE is drawn solely from my TBR and doesn’t include Kindle books (I know I have at least three or four to read for NetGalley) or the three Iris Murdoch books I’ll read for #IMreadalong. I am including eight books for August which will also participate in All Virago (and Persephone) / All August, which I do with the LibraryThing Virago Group every year. And I reckon I can do it, especially as I’m trying hard to address my work/life balance, so HAVING to read is a good thing.

So, here’s the pile, I’ll be reading it from bottom up, so it’s lucky it lives sensibly on my shelves, not lounging around on the duvet, as here …

William Sitwell – “Eggs or Anarchy” – The story of how Lord Woolton, Minister for Food, fed Britain during WWII

Amit Katwala – “The Athletic Brain” – About how neuroscience is revolutionising sports science and can apparently even help amateur sportspeople at all levels.

Vikas Swarup – “The Accidental Apprentice” – His more famous novel is Q&A, filmed as Slumdog Millionaire. In this one, an ordinary sales assistant is swept up to become a CEO by a billionaire, but why and will she pass his seven tests?

George Eliot – “Scenes of Clerical Life” – One of the few Eliots I haven’t read now, her earliest stories of religion, power and love.

David Weir – “Weirwolf” – The autobiography of the amazing athlete who’s won everything from the London marathon multiple times to Paralympics medals at different distances.

Robert McFarlane – “The Old Ways” – I think everyone in the world except for me has read this, where he follows the old tracks, hollow ways, drovers’ paths etc. of Britain.

Clare Balding – “Walking Home” – Not a second volume of autobiography but more walking, this time around modern Britain, meeting people. This will either go really well with / contrast with the McFarlane or I’ll get heartily sick of all the walking and have to swap the order!

Gillian Tindall – “The Tunnel Through Time” – Looks at the archaeological and sociological evidence uncovered by the building of Crossrail in London as well as historical sources to show who walked those routes and when.

Christopher McDougall – “Born to Run” – I think all runners who read have probably read this seminal text on barefoot and ultrarunning (and barefoot ultrarunning), something I really don’t want to do but find fascinating.

Peter Ginna (ed.) – “What Editors Do” – Includes a chapter by my friend Katharine O’Moore-Klopf and loads of detail about the work of the editor.

Prajwal Parajuly – “Land Where I Flee” – Phew, another bit of fiction at last! Three expats fly back to Sikkim for their grandmother’s birthday. Will they gain her blessing and retain their sanity and escape again?

Becky Wade – “Run the World” – Reports on running cultures from around the world, some of which I’ve already read about, some of which will be new to me. I see that I skipped over another expat fiction work in the TBR to read yet another running book …

And the Viragoes and Persephones for August. First some Viragoes:

Ellen Glasgow – “Barren Ground” – A 1925 novel detailing the life of a Virginia woman who survives an early disappointment to build her own life.

Ann Bridge – “Peking Picnic” – Her first novel, a diplomat’s wife realises the contrast between China and England, along with a cast of fellow English people. She’s such a witty writer and conveys place so well.

Angela Thirkell – “Summer Half” – New teacher Colin Keith encounters the terrifying Tony Morland and comedy in the school and village ensues.

Angela Thirkell – “The Brandons” – More Barsetshire comedy, with widow Lavinia Brandon batting away suitors while trying to matchmake for the vicar.

Then three Persephones

Tirzah Garwood – “Long Live Great Bardfield” – Wood engraver Garwood wrote this in 1942 as German planes circled overhead, telling of her art and her marriage to Eric Ravilious and the circle of artists around them. I hope this is good because it’s really thick! I’ve just realised this might just fill another year in my poor old Century of Books!

Joanna Cannan – “Princes in the Land” – The mother of the Pullein-Thompson pony-book sisters on a woman whose life is centred around her children, who gradually move away from her. Ali reviewed this back in 2016 and was very enthusiastic.

Diana Tutton – “Guard Your Daughters” – The One Simon from Stuck-in-a-Book is always pressing onto people (rather successfully!) so I had to get it when Persephone published it. A young girl in a family of sisters narrates their odd life – hard to resist anyway!

Enid Bagnold – “The Loved and Envied” – Set in France, Lady MacLean is a fading beauty, still with her courtiers. A slim Virago, received just the other week.

What do you think of my choices? Do you think I’ll get through them all? Are you doing 20BooksOfSummer, too?

Book review – Gladys Huntingdon – “Madame Solario” @PersephoneBooks #20BooksOfSummer #PersephoneBooks #amreading


At last, the final book of my #20BooksOfSummer challenge, and also the last book in All Virago (and Persephone) all August, and yes, I do know it’s after the end of 20Books and after the end of August, but as I explained last time, it couldn’t come to the Iris Murdoch conference with me in the end so had to be finished when I got back. A really good read, though, and it’s always lovely to read a book set somewhere you know, in this case the town of Cadenabbia on Lake Como in Northern Italy – we had a holiday there in 2009 and I include some photos to illustrate the review.

Gladys Huntingdon – “Madame Solario”

(21 January 2017 – birthday present from Ali)

A pretty long book, set mostly in Cadenabbia and the associated small towns and villas dotted around Lake Como. Like a two-week holiday, we get sucked into the loves and lives of the exclusive set at the hotel, noticing who is after whom, who arrives on the boat and who leaves. Cadenabbia is a small community of hotels and you can see who’s coming from a mile off, but you can also walk up into the forests above the hotels and get some peace and quiet.

cadenabbia madame solario

We see everything first through young Englishman Bernard Middleton’s eyes – he becomes popular with the young set but is seen as, variously, someone who needs to be looked after and a mere child by some of the older men who have been through war, etc. The middle section of the book, which does go quite slowly, is from the viewpoint of the mysterious, beautiful Madame Solario and her brother, returned suddenly from exile after a family scandal, although it’s noteworthy that we never enter into the interior life of Natalia, viewing her always from the outside as a sort of screen onto which others’ desires are projected. Then the rather languorous action suddenly springs into life again with the third section, again with Bernard.

There’s acute social observation in this book, published anonymously post-World War Two but set in 1906, and also “acute observation” of the guests, by the guests – really, nothing gets past anyone and gossip spreads like wildfire among the multiple social groupings and nationalities:

In that forcing-house for situations everything was noticed, and conjecture was lush.

Of course, this might just save someone’s bacon in the end; you never know.

The narrative is punctuated by picnics, some in the Villa Carlotta’s beautiful grounds:

Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia

Villa Carlotta, Cadenabbia

and other events at the Villa d’Este (still a location for social whirls), including dances and balls. There are often dangerous undercurrents flowing and social or financial ruin, amusing or otherwise, always seems close at hand. Middleton is a dear and his best moments are when he is as intimate as he ever is with his Madame Solario, observing her cushion case and her many hats and accoutrements. Should Bernard heed the warnings and stay with “his own”?

Perhaps I have read too much Iris Murdoch, but I picked up on the hints of the shocking denouement early on, although you have to search for it carefully amidst the chaos of the later scenes. An intriguing book, quite a long read, but a good one.

This was part of my All Virago (and Persephone) / All August challenge, but most importantly, Book 20 in my #20BooksofSummer challenge. All done, only a few days late!

Book review – Alexei Sayle – “Stalin Ate my Homework” plus #20BooksOfSummer update #amreading #books


A little bit of a gap until my first reviews this month – I was away at the Iris Murdoch Society Conference (write-up here if you missed it) and of course was reading on the train journeys there and back. As well as this one, I’ve read Daniel Tammet’s new book of essays, “Every Word is a Bird we Teach to Sing” but that was to review for Shiny New Books, so more on that one later in the month.  Unfortunately, going to the conference meant I’ve failed ever so slightly in #20BooksOfSummer – a report on that below.

Alexei Sayle – “Stalin Ate my Homework”

(21 January 2017, from Sian)

A birthday book, chosen (slightly out of TBR sequence) for the journey because it was a smaller paperback and should be an easy and engaging read – which it was. There’s a comment on the front that “It’s not like other comedians’ memoirs. It’s funny.” from The Guardian, and while I have read some other amusing ones, yes, it’s funny.

Sayle is witty about his odd family, ever-smiling Dad and extremely volatile Mum, his own failings and life in general being raised as a Communist where, if you believe in Leftist principles anyway, the only way to rebel is to become a Maoist. There’s loads of interesting detail about how it actually was to be a Communist, including trying to have holidays in Eastern Bloc countries. They have a couple of trips to Czechoslovakia where, ironically, they are treated like the royal family, with nothing too much trouble, and he even invents a country based on the state, mainly because, as he memorably says, “Being an only child was a bit like taking an extraordinarily long train journey: you were always trying to find something to do to pass the time”. Love it!

He has a talent to entertain but sadly doesn’t really use it in the right ways – I love how he’s genuinely surprised to get kicked out of school at one point. I really enjoyed his tales of growing up within the party system, finding a Communist to help wherever they went and having various adventures in the Eastern Bloc, thanks to his railwayman dad’s concessionary rail pass (most of his colleagues just use it to go to Blackpool: they head for the edges of the Soviet Union). It’s not all silliness and Communism, though: there’s a real sense of developing his comedy skills (being in Liverpool, he has the advantage of a tradition of careful critique of all comedy) and of the family pulling apart, especially when his dad’s health declines.

We leave young Alexei going off to art college, where I’m pretty sure he’s going to cause mayhem. I have the second volume on the TBR (great move, Sian, thank you) and can’t wait to get into it.

#20BooksOfSummer update

Well, gentle readers, I’ve failed. #20BooksOfSummer ended a few days ago and I have yet to finish “Madame Solario”. It’s a great big (500 page) Persephone and I just wasn’t able to pack it for the conference in the end (and even if I had taken it, there wasn’t that much reading time in the end). The days before the conference were full of working extremely hard in a busy patch at work, and it’s still not finished.

Here’s my original post with my selection, and below documents what I achieved:

Dorothy Whipple – Every Good Deed and other Stories – Book 1 read and reviewed

Mitch Prinstein – Popular – Book 2 read and reviewed on the blog and for Shiny New Books

Jane Gardam – Old Filth – Book 3 Did Not Start, replaced by Helen Mitsios – Out of the Blue – read and reviewed

Barbara Taylor – Eve and the New Jerusalem – Book 4 read and reviewed

Natasha Solomons – The Gallery of Vanished Husbands – Book 5 read and reviewed

Eric Newby – Something Wholesale – Book 6 read and reviewed

Nick Baker – ReWild – Book 7 read and reviewed on the blog and for Shiny New Books

Francis Brett Young – The Black Diamond – Book 8 read and reviewed

Stuart Maconie – Long Road from Jarrow – Book 9 read and reviewed on the blog and for Shiny New Books

John-Paul Flintoff – Sew Your Own – Book 10 read and reviewed

Miriam Toews – A Boy of Good Breeding – Book 11 read and reviewed

Farahad Zama – Mrs Ali’s Road to Happiness – Book 12 read and reviewed

Adam Nicolson – When God Spoke English – Book 13 read and reviewed

Susie Dent – How to Talk Like a Local – Book 14 read and reviewed

Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day – Book 15 read and reviewed

Scott Jurek – Eat and Run – Book 16 read and reviewed

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God – Book 17 read and reviewed

Amber Reeves – A Lady and Her Husband – Book 18 read and reviewed

R.C. Sheriff – Greengates – Book 19 read and reviewed

Gladys Huntingdon – Madame Solario – Book 20 currently reading

It’s a lovely challenge; you’re never made to feel you’ve actually failed even if you don’t finish at all, and I definitely started and was reading Madame Solario within the time period. All of the books were good reads and entertaining and/or thought-provoking, and I enjoyed seeing what other people doing the challenge were reading, and will look forward to their round-ups.

State of the TBR – September 2017


Well the TBR is as large as ever but I have made progress on it since August – it’s shuffled up a lot but a few have joined at the end. I did pull out the Persephones for All Virago / All August and #20BooksofSummer but I’ve also read quite a lot in August – hooray (11 books, which is quite high for me these days)

I’m currently reading Gladys Huntingdon’s “Madame Solario” which is set in Cadenabbia on Lake Como, a place I have actually stayed. It’s very absorbing and gossipy, like being in a hotel and watching the other residents. This is Book 20 in my #20BooksOfSummer project – you can see my progress here and even though I am not actually taking it away with me to the Iris Murdoch Society Conference (too bulky – I’ve popped Alexei Sayle’s “Stalin Ate My Homework” in instead), I should get it finished by the September 4 deadline for the end of 20Books. I’m about to start (and have packed) Daniel Tammet’s “Every Word is a Bird we Teach to Sing”, which is about language – I’m reviewing it for Shiny New Books and very much looking forward to reading it.

Coming up next on the shelf are these lovelies. I have the NetGalley TBR down to 10 books now (and have won my 25 books reviewed badge, which you should be able to see on this blog; I think I have two books to go until I’m back at 80% reviewed, too) so should get to a few of these. I know Ali has the Angela Carter bio so we might read that together. These represent the end of Christmas and the beginning of my birthday books – so I’m finally reading books I acquired this year, which always seems like a bit of a triumph!

What does your September reading look like? How’s the old TBR?

Book review – R.C. Sherriff – “Greengates” @PersephoneBooks #20Booksofsummer #amreading


20 books of summer pile 2017Another fantastic Persephone – I’ve read Sherriff’s wonderful “The Fortnight in September“, unfortunately not in the Persephone edition because I bought it before that came out (a decade ago, I notice), and I was very pleased to open this from Ali on Christmas Day last year.

R. C. Sherriff – “Greengates”

(25 December 2016 – from Ali)

You wouldn’t think you could get a whole book out of a retired couple buying a house, but this is the master of making the everyday fascinating and it’s an absorbing and poignant read.

It opens with Tom Baldwin’s last day at work in an insurance office in London, where he has to be ‘surprised’ by a retirement gift giving the pattern of which he’s seen infinite numbers of times before. We see him retire at 58 (lucky him!), full of ideas for the future and plans to make his mark on the world, and then at home, gleeful in his possession of a house and land:

A vast wedge that tapered slowly away until as a minute pin-point it met everybody else’s land.

– who, after reading that, will think of their garden in exactly the same way again? But then he very quickly upsets their long-standing maid (who contributes much of the poignancy to the book, aching for her mistress’s sorrows and, when the time comes, doing the right thing neatly and unobtrusively), and his wife Edith starts to very much regret the assumption that when he retires, she retires, too, losing her light lunch and her afternoon naps with much reluctance and guilt:

The slave to a habit that showed its teeth when it was disturbed.

They gradually fall into bitter despair: Tom sees that his historical researches are going to go nowhere and realises it’s hard to make your mark on the world, and Edith is driven down by his depression and her inability to make 12 hours’ worth of conversation a day. Tom even starts to be drawn to the comforts of becoming semi-invalid, and as they leave the house to take a walk, one of the neighbours pegs him as someone who’s a potential suicide, something linking back to a newspaper article he read on his final train journey home (we’ll see more of these clever little links later).

But in fact, they’re about to embark upon a life-changing experience, and we will them on as they scrape the money together and hope they will be able to negotiate a new life in one of those new developments that sprang up in the 1930s (that we’re all aware of now). will they manage to sell their house and achieve their new dreams, and will those dreams, once fulfilled, actually be all they hoped?

There are some lovely side characters and flashes of deep emotion and humour – such as when Tom categorises a new friend by how he refers to his wife (“The wife” is worse than “My wife”). The charming epilogue rounds things off and provides an interesting contrast: when they are first described looking at the landscape, which Edith is criticised for preferring to castles and other historic monuments, her knowledge of the trees is shut down by her husband. Yet when their garden has finally burgeoned, it’s because she has taken it over and, presumably, balance has been restored.

This book falls into the All Virago/Persephone All August category AND is Book 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project.

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