Big Read 2021: ‘Airhead’ reviews by the St George’s community

Decorative logo for the Big Read project at St George's

This year, Emily Maitlis’s book Airhead : the imperfect art of making news was chosen as St George’s University’s Big Read book. The Big Read is a shared reading project to foster a sense of belonging among staff and students. It is not too late to claim your free e-book copy. Visit our website to find out more.

Since the beginning of the academic year we have had a number of engaging events around the Big Read. We have met for book clubs (there’s another one on the 28th April). People from across the institution organised discussions around some of the themes covered by the book such as the environment, grief, meditation and movement. We also had the pleasure of welcoming Emily Maitlis to St George’s and hearing from her directly as she was interviewed by two St George’s students. You can find the recording of that session here.

Airhead is a collection of Emily Maitlis’s accounts of meeting world-famous people, reporting on significant world events and investigating important topics of the day. As such, the book lends itself perfectly to reviews as each of us will have chapters that resonate more than others.

Book cover for Airhead by Emily Maitlis

Below you can read a selection of chapter reviews from members across the St George’s community.

Dan Jeffcote (Information Assistant) – David Attenborough: One hour in a hot-air balloon

The interview took place just after the BBC released “Planet Earth II”.  The programme features incredible camera-work and increasingly there is a sense of urgency about the effects of climate change on the planet in his work.

In the interview he discusses issues such as the ozone layer, plastic, building in wildlife habitats and population growth. He is clearly passionate about using scientific evidence to explain climate change. He is well known for his gift for narration and as an adventurer but its his calmness, thoughtfulness and wisdom that come across in this chapter.

His message appears to be we have at this moment in time a choice to either “destroy” or “cherish” our heritage.  Emily Maitlis describes her one hour with him as an interview that calms her soul.

Alina Apostu (Student Experience Officer) – A few words on Jon Stewart and the creature of the news

I suppose one question is ‘What is it like? What is it like to meet all those people in person?’

She, Emily Maitlis, does a good job at giving you a sense of how that might be … but it’s a different feeling that she makes real for the reader …

While all the names in Airhead are big names, my first chapter to read was the one about Jon Steward. I like Jon Stewart. A lot. I like his work, his humour, his voice (both metaphorically and literally). So I echoed Maitlis’ hopes that ‘I do not want to find out he’s a complete muppet in real life. That his thoughts are all tightly scripted, his jokes pre-prepped. I am desperate, in other words, not to be disappointed.’ (p.60).

In the chapter, Maitlis moves so swiftly from mention of his film, Rosewater, and the story behind it of the incarcerated Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, to the different implications of writing news and writing satire, to his political convictions, to the relationship to his father, to his retirement from the Daily Show, to his view of Islamism, to the effects news have on people’s actual lives, to how he thinks (or doesn’t) about the audience. Eight topics in what feels like a glimpse of a meeting.

As I read, the feeling that became real was of that rush, that rush of the news, of the need to ‘get it’, of the clock-ticking… the book doesn’t lie, it is about the imperfect art of making news, and it felt that whom I met was not so much Jon Stewart but something else … an entity, a creature of the news that takes hold of everything, that brings interviewer and interviewee together in a quick exchange, moving oh so swiftly between philosophical questions, practical implications in real life and personal, intimate histories. Not sure how I feel about that creature …

Sue David (Associate Director of Information Services (Library & Learning Services)) – Rachel Dolezal: the black human activist who turned out to be white

I have enjoyed Emily Maitlis’s book Airhead, with its broad range of issues and personalities and its insight into the frantic life of a journalist – her emotional rollercoaster and personal struggles and juggles.

I found this chapter particularly thought provoking in the context of my own journey towards an understanding of issues associated with racism which have recently been brought to the fore, but which have been part of the British narrative for centuries.

Rachel is a complicated character with a host of interwoven complexities following her abusive upbringing and the negligence and despair she suffered as a child.  That she finds solace in a role as a substitute mother to four adopted black siblings in whose culture she become immersed is a fascinating insight into someone who is looking for a sense of belonging and a need to escape from her own reality.

Emily Maitlis treats Rachel with empathy and compassion.  She does not try to sensationalise her story and has split loyalties, understanding what others will be expecting from the interview – and they are disappointed.  The vitriolic responses to Rachel and the interview are deeply upsetting and have a personal impact on Maitlis who feels an inner need to protect the person behind the story.

This is an example of a hugely complex story which cannot be tackled from a single perspective.  Here the issues “had overtaken the person at the centre”, but the focus of the interview was Rachel and Emily Maitlis treats her subject with sensitivity despite the expectations of her audience.

James Calvert (Liaison Support Librarian (Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education))

Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News examines the nature of broadcast news journalism, capturing a vivid snapshot of what happens in front of the camera as well as behind the scenes. As an anecdotal tale of her journalistic adventures, and seemingly fuelled on a diet of chocolate, alcohol and very little sleep, Emily Maitlis takes us swiftly from one famous encounter to the next, her book presented as a collection of compelling vignettes. The short, episodical chapters that make up this easy-reading, but not always comfortable-reading book offers an insider’s perspective on the news-making process. For myself, this never felt more real than with the chapter, ‘Meeting a Prince’, an account of the build-up of the weeks and days to that now infamous Newsnight interview, an important event that may still have the power to help Epstein’s victims later down the line.

Anne Binsfeld (Liaison Support Librarian (IMBE)) – Russell Brand: How Addiction Starts with a Penguin Bar

While I don’t necessarily like Russell Brand, his way of branding himself or even most of his opinions, I really enjoyed the chapter on Maitlis’s interview with Brand around addiction and his book Recovery. Emily Maitlis’s honesty is disarming and I am intrigued by her claim that his book is ‘a sort of AA programme without the pomposity’ considering Russell Brand comes across as pompous and over the top quite often. In this interview however, or rather in Emily’s account of this interview, he comes across as insightful and honest – perhaps because I can see the importance of acknowledging addiction as incredibly common, be it to online shopping sprees (in Maitlis’s case) or drinks, drugs and Penguin bars (in Brand’s case). I would imagine after a year of Covid-19 and three lockdowns down the line, most of us have developed unhealthy coping mechanisms to, as Brand says, supplement ‘our experience of being’. Addiction is a distraction from worries and fears that just feel too large for us to face head on. Despite Brand’s charm, Maitlis doesn’t let him off the hook easily and I have also enjoyed reading about that. Although she might not get any ‘tears of repentance’, she does know how to ask those questions that touch on something true and important in Brand’s experience. In return, Brand comes across as an engaged and engaging interviewee. The final scene highlights poignantly that the art of making news is a game of give and take, like a dance in which interviewer and interviewee are in communication with each other. Great interviews are not one-directional and as Emily Maitlis is happy to admit, put the interviewer on the spot time and time again.

The Big Read has arrived at St George’s

The idea behind the Big Read is for everyone at St George’s to come together over a shared reading experience. This year The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was chosen and every first-year student receives their own SGUL copy of the book.

The Big Read project centres around making students, returning or brand-new to St George’s, feel welcome. It will help those of you who are feeling slightly nervous about being in a whole new environment, possibly away from home for the very first time and meeting lots of new people. As everyone takes part in this big book club, you have a conversation starter ready-made.

This year marks the first time St George’s University has its very own Big Read Project and to celebrate the occasion, Library staff have got together to discuss Harold’s pilgrimage over a cup of tea and a biscuit (or two). We had a lively discussion about Joyce’s novel and as in any good book club, we found that we all had slightly (or very) different opinions on the protagonists and key themes.

Below you can read our (spoiler-free) thoughts on the novel.

Beth, Liaison Support Librarian (IMBE)

It’s easy to see why The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was picked for this year’s Big Read title: it’s packed full of big topics that readers from all backgrounds will be able to relate to in some way. As the plot unfolds, it tackles (among many others) themes of grief and loss, loneliness, kindness, addiction and friendship. It’s an enjoyable easy read too, despite some difficult subject matter, as we accompany Harold on his pilgrimage across the UK. When I originally sat down to gather my thoughts for this post, I found myself wondering whether this had quite as profound an impact on me as previous Big Read selections. However, I was forced to re-examine that opinion after getting involved with our staff book group – this is certainly a story that deserves some unpacking and discussion. I’ve found myself revisiting and reappraising the way in which this book tackles these big issues and actually, it appears it’s definitely left its mark.

Anne, Liaison Support Librarian (Faculty of Health, Social Care and Education)

The themes in Harold Fry are universal to the human experience and include loss, regret, dysfunctional relationships and ageing. However, for me the power of the narrative lies in the portrayal of seemingly more minor topics, such as the importance of spending time outside in nature, mindfulness, and connecting with others regardless of how different they are from us. Along with Harold, the reader learns, or rather is reminded, that we are all unique and yet the same. We are often struggling with very similar problems, but ordinary human life is also full of wonders and human connection, which are always around us if we take a minute to appreciate them.

While the book unquestionably addresses really big topics, and can be emotionally challenging at times, it is a real page-turner.

Jenni, Research Publications Assistant

I thought that the portrayal of the beginning of Harold’s pilgrimage was very effective: he increases the length of his journey to post his letter by increments, unable to truly admit to himself that he doesn’t want to return to the home that represents his emotional stagnation, and once the idea of the pilgrimage occurs to him, giving him the excuse to keep going, he seizes on it. His inability to think about the practical reality of his pilgrimage, or to make any active plans other than to continue it, worked well as a mirror for his inability to entirely face his own emotions and past all in one go: like his pilgrimage, he has to tackle it piece by piece, at an angle, without admitting that’s what he’s doing until he’s already doing it

Dan, Information Assistant

I enjoyed Rachel Joyce’s book. There are many themes running through like isolation, grief and loneliness. However, my favourite chapter in the book is when Harold on his pilgrimage meets with Martina a qualified Doctor from another country and although she has problems of her own to address she nonetheless dresses his wounds from excessive walking and takes care of him for a few days when he clearly is exhausted.  It highlights one of the major themes in the book which is the unexpected kindness of strangers when you most need it.

Michelle, Research Data Manager, had a different take on the novel

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is an inspiring book about illness, suffering and loss, and how these expressions of human existence transcend the various skins that hold them. Unfortunately, for a book about the fragility of skin and the universality of the human condition, Harold is hard to relate to. Harold is of a particular time and place and even as he challenges his own lens he is caught within them, making this a conflicting read at times.

At the end of the Library’s own book club, we couldn’t agree whether the protagonists have more to celebrate than to mourn or whether Harold’s journey has a “happy end” or not, so get reading today and join the discussion on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter today.

Previous years’ books

Organised since 2015, Big Read has been growing every year. In 2018, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine was picked, which proved very popular with Library staff. This and previous years’ short-listed titles are available on loan from the Library, as well as all the winning titles of course. You can read our thoughts on the books from previous years by clicking on The Big Read tag.

Current students and SGUL staff can pick up a copy of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from the help desk in the Library.

Author’s visit

Join us on 6th November for the Big Read Author talk at St George’s where Rachel Joyce will speak about her book and signs your copy! Find out more here. Booking is essential!

Hot off the press: My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

Pick up your own free copy of My Name is Leon today!

This special edition is published as part of the KU Big Read and includes comments about last year’s Big Read and discussion prompts to help you join in the conversation.

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New students starting at Kingston University London this year will receive a copy over the summer, including FHSCE students studying at the joint faculty of Kingston and St George’s, to welcome them to University life. Current students and staff can grab the book for themselves from the library helpdesk at St George’s.

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You can read our staff and student reviews of all of the shortlisted Big Read titles, including Senior Lecturer Joanne Powell’s review of My Name is Leon, by clicking on The Big Read tag.

Author visit to St George’s

Kit De Waal’s first novel has become an award winning best seller and was shortlisted for the 2016 Costa First Novel Award. Lenny Henry, after narrating an audiobook version, has optioned the book for TV, so we’re sure there will be big and exciting things still to come for this wonderful book.

Speaking of exciting news soon to come – Kit De Waal will be visiting St George’s in October. It will be a great opportunity to hear her speak about her book and maybe even get your own copy signed!

Further details will be annouced on the KU Big Read website, or watch this space…

Lunchtime book club

There will be a one-off lunchtime book club in August for staff to discuss the themes in My Name is Leon. Please contact St George’s Library if you’re interested in joining.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of My Name is Leon, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: The Brilliant & Forever by Kevin MacNeil

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A review of The Brilliant and Forever, written by Catriona Robertson, FHSCE Liaison Support Librarian

MacNeil is a wordsmith and the novel delights with beautifully written passages and moments of unexpected humour which bring to light the human condition.

After having read and loved another one of Kevin MacNeil’s books, The Stornoway Way, I was really excited to see that his new book, The Brilliant and Forever, was shortlisted for the KU Big Read and jumped at the chance to read it. I certainly wasn’t disappointed!

The Brilliant and Forever is set on a nameless island where humans and alpacas live unharmoniously side by side. There are lots of parallels that can be drawn between the island and the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where MacNeil grew up. Anyone from a small town can surely empathise with some of the idiosyncrasies of island life.

The novel centres around an annual book festival held on the island called The Brilliant and Forever. The festival draws an eclectic crowd of locals and literary types from further afield, who hope to make a name for themselves in this remote and strange place. We see events unfold from the perspective of our nameless protagonist, who is best friends with Macy and Archie the alpaca. Our protagonist is a contemplative man who experiences moments of clarity and calm, particularly whilst cycling around the island. As the reader, you can’t help but share his love and endearment for his companions. Macy defies conventions and is full of kooky ideas and witticisms and the funny but anxious Archie is nobly leading a fight for alpaca rights. All three are aspiring writers taking part in the literary festival.

Within the book is a series of short stories which are all individual entries for the festival. Each of these stories are unique, fantastic, humorous and heart-breaking. Even in these individual tales, MacNeil’s voice comes through. There is an unbroken thread weaving the festival stories together with themes of empathy, identity, and loneliness emerging. MacNeil also brings together folklore traditions of storytelling and the modern world.

The island can be seen as a microcosm of our society. There are many divides on the island, from the rich whitehousers to the poorer blackhousers. Black houses are traditional houses from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which were sometimes viewed as crude and inferior structures to the newer white houses. In the book, these houses represent the privileged and less privileged echelons of society. There is also divide between humans and alpacas. There are elements of segregation on the island, and alpacas are treated as second class citizens. Archie’s entry to the B&F festival is all the more remarkable as none of the judges are alpacas, and the publishers who hold power are all human. The privileged whitehousers have a veneer of respectability and civility but they struggle with perpetual unhappiness due to their materialistic culture. There are strong undercurrents of violence and an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality amongst the whitehousers.

As I read the book I found myself at times despairing and at times full of rage for the injustices Archie and others face in the novel. Ultimately, I felt uplifted by the examples of unlikely friendships and the vision of a fair and shared community for all. I’d definitely recommend this book. If you don’t enjoy it, in the words of Archie, “it’s a jazz thing you don’t get”.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Brilliant & Forever, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

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A review of The Penguin Lessons, written by Eduardo R. Garcia, Midwifery student

A foreign country in turmoil. An adventure. An unforgettable friendship.

The Penguin Lessons is a narrative told in first person by the author, Tom Michell, whose family members were distributed all over the world and inspired him with tales and stories about their discoveries, filling his imagination and making him familiar with these places. However, while this encouraged his adventurous spirit to take off, he was also moved by the desire to explore an unknown territory where his relatives had not been before, and hence why South America came as a perfect destination for his cause. Years later, during the 70s, an advertisement looking for staff in a Boarding School in Argentina would become his passage to his longed for adventure, fearless of the economic and political situation that whipped the country in the meantime.

What makes this personal journey especial is not only the wealth of insight into Argentina, its people and the description of a period that is long gone. The real core of the story is the friendship between Michell and Juan Salvador, or Juan Salvado: a penguin that our leading man rescued out of the jaws of death.

Michell’s action could have stayed as an anecdote in an otherwise more formal and serious narrative, however he decided to take the penguin under his arm and continue his travels, bringing Juan Salvado with him into the Boarding School, and making this the story of a lifetime. The bird, or the way that he is presented to us by Michell, makes us think of him as a character with his own personality and decision-making; he is a little fighter that serves as a main narrative thread, providing emotive and funny moments as this peculiar and almost fantastical relationship between bird and human develops.

Perfectly written, and unfolding wit and charm, Michell imagines the replies that Juan Salvado gives him through his eyes or actions, humanizing the character and making the readers understand his desire to protect the animal and why everyone around loves him, breaking the barriers that one could imagine as impregnable between a penguin and the human world. Because, at the end of the day, could a penguin belong with humans?

With the sensitivity of someone who has observed the damage that human actions could perpetrate in nature, the author inspires us to be considerate with the environment. Also, in reference to the title of the novel, Michell learns and demystifies knowledge and ideas about penguins, teaching us some tips in case, one day, we find ourselves in a similar situation and need to parent one of them.

Similar reads: Big Fish, Water for Elephants.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Penguin Lessons, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

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A review of The Power, written by Beth Jackson, FMBS Liaison Support Librarian

This powerful, provocative tale of how power corrupts will leave you questioning not only the dystopian world of Roxy, Allie, Margot and Tunde but our own society too. ‘Shockingly’ good.

How different would our world be if women were the dominant gender, wielding physical power over men? This is the central theme running through The Power, which examines how society changes after teenage girls suddenly develop the ability to discharge electricity through their hands. They soon learn they are able to awaken the power in older women too, and before long the entire female population are able to control, hurt and kill their oppressors – in this case, men.

How the global chaos unfolds is told through the stories of four central characters. Roxy, the daughter of a gangster, is caught in a criminal underworld and desperate to avenge her mother’s murder. Margot, a low-level American politician who once bestowed the power exploits it for political gain. Allie, a runaway who escapes her abusive foster father and becomes the leader of the new revolution, amassing followers who believe in the supremacy of women. Finally Tunde, a Nigerian journalist whose viral video of a teenager discharging her power on a male harasser kick-starts what becomes known as the ‘Day of the Girls’.

We see how their stories converge over the years as the power mechanics shift and belief systems change. Alderman does not present a matriarchal utopia by any means and graphically depicts the cruelty women are capable of. This can make for tough reading at times, but what’s most unsettling is that many of the displays of violence she posits are gender-flipped examples of the brutality inflicted on women in the real world. Considering the difficult and complex topics in the novel, the violence doesn’t feel gratuitous and serves a broader purpose of highlighting stereotypes about gender and illustrates how power can corrupt anyone.

It might not be the gentlest read among KU Big Read shortlist, but it is certainly packed with action, suspense and plenty of provocative scenes which will keep you ruminating long after you’ve finished the book.

Notable mention: If you are a fan of Margaret Atwood (particularly The Handmaid’s Tale) you might be interested to know she mentored Alderman back in 2012 (they co-wrote a zombie serialisation together!). Her influence can be felt in the storytelling and the dystopian themes underpinning the novel.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Power, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Available to Borrow Now: ‘KU Big Read @ St George’s Library’ Books

Introducing our new book display in the library to celebrate the KU Big Read @ St George’s Library. As well as My Name is Leon, the official KU Big Read of 2017, all of the shortlisted books are featured in the display with a reviewer recommendation. They are available to borrow on a three week loan. If you would like to know more about the KU Big Read shortlisted titles you can read our weekly reviews using the Big Read tag.

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We also have last years winner, The Humans, in the book display as well as a range of fiction and non-fiction from our LGBTQ+ and Mind Boosting collections. So, if you’re wanting to take your mind off your exams, or you want to pick up a good summer read, come by the library to check out the display!

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Book Review: Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong

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A review of Radio Sunrise, written by Dr Julia Wood, Senior Researcher

Ifiok, our narrator, is a journalist at Radio Sunrise in Lagos. In his world, the “brown envelop” is the driving force – it contains the bribes that decide which topics will be covered and how favourably. Sadly, he often lacks the money he needs to stuff his own envelops to procure the favours he needs to sweeten his life.

His assignments include some bizarre stories such as the missing penis case and the goat arrested for armed robbery. There are strange beliefs held by those around Ifiok. The devout Christian studio manager calls some airlines “diabolical transporters” who engineer crashes to suck the victims’ blood whilst his girlfriend considers his favourite restaurateur to be an evil being who sprinkles magical herbs by the door to increase the number of customers. Although Ifiok does not believe these stories he is concerned that a young woman may have put a love potion in his food.

Ifiok often feels sad about the bad things that happen in his country. The penis snatcher has petrol poured on him and is only saved from burning by an out of control truck scattering the crowd of vigilantes. He refers to a country of thieves: he steals stories from CNN, the radio station accountant steals his pen, and politicians steal votes while the rich steal from the poor. There is a policy to support local drama but prime time TV mostly shows dated Mexican soaps and his own radio drama has been cut.

Disappointments feature strongly in Ifiok’s story but Isong’s writing makes it colourful and humorous. The book is engaging and made me care deeply about what would happen to the narrator. It provided a window in to a world that is so different to anything I know from my life in London that the term ‘small world’ should be scrubbed out. I highly recommend it, enjoy!


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of Radio Sunrise, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book review: My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

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A review of My Name is Leon, written by Joanne Powell, Senior Lecturer in General Practice Nursing

I so enjoyed reading and reviewing this beautifully and sensitively written book for The Big Read. The story starts with the birth of Jake and the reader soon realises that his mother, Carol, can’t cope.  Leon is nine years old and his baby brother, Jake, has just been born. The book describes a particularly difficult period during Leon’s childhood.

The book opens with his mother leaving Jake to go and have a cigarette leaving Leon and Jake together on their own.  Carol is also on her own as a single parent – both brothers have different and absent fathers and while Carol and Jake are white, Leon is mixed race. His father, Byron, is in prison, while Jake’s father, Tony, is in another relationship and has rejected Carol and Jake.

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Illustration and blurb extract

Carol has problems coping on her own and spirals into a desperate decline relying on Leon and often leaving him and Jake alone or with her neighbour, Tina. Tina raises the alarm when Leon, desperately hungry, asks Tina for money for food.   Jake and Leon go to live with Maureen, an emergency foster carer with “fuzzy red hair like a halo and a belly like Father Christmas”. Jake is soon adopted – he’s white and a baby and therefore in demand. But no one will adopt Leon who has a black father and is already too old.

This book is set during the 1980s in Birmingham during a troubled time characterized by racial tension – Irish republicanism and police brutality against black people that spark the riots of 1981. After a birthday present of a bike, Leon develops a sense of freedom and discovers the Rookery Road allotments. Here we are introduced to pivotal characters Tufty and Mr Devlin. They both introduce Leon to the concept of nurture through the planting and cultivating vegetables from seeds. However, the allotment is a political hotbed and racial tensions spark between Tufty, a West Indian political activist who Leon admires and Mr. Devlin, an aging member of the IRA. Leon, who listens too much at doorways and keyholes, is focused on being reunited with Jake and plots to find him.

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80s Boombox illustration from the book

This book is a page turner as you seek to find out how it works out for Leon. It provides an important and sometimes uncomfortable commentary on attitudes to parenting, race and adoption during the 1980’s. For me, being a child of the 1980’s, I found the descriptions of the racial tension and riots uncomfortable to read and it provoked distant memories. The novel is full of quietly shocking moments which also reveals how much child protection has moved on from 30 years ago.


If this brilliant review hasn’t already convinced you to read My Name is Leon, here’s another reason – it’s  now the winner of KU Big Read. Congratulations Kit De Waal!


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of My Name is Leon, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book review: The Elephant and the Bee by Jess de Boer

This is the first book review in a series of six for the KU Big Read @ St George’s Library. Each of the six shortlisted KU Big Read titles will be featured in a weekly review, written by a member of the University and FHSCE community.


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A review of The Elephant and the Bee, written by Natalie Pither, a 2nd year Midwifery student

This is Jess de Boer’s first book. She was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, into a privileged Dutch family. She was inspired from an early age to want to bring about change in the world. Following university, she had a wide variety of jobs from chef to office administrator and even as a representative for Kenya in women’s triathlon.

In The Elephant and the Bee we follow Jess’s story, in her own words, covering her extensive travels as she searches for the dream job that will really make a positive impact in the world.

The style is informal and easy to read. Within the serious message that Jess wants to convey about man’s destruction of the planet, there are moments of utter hilarity. This juxtaposition is enthralling and leads the reader on page by page and chapter by chapter, always wondering how the title of the book will eventually fit into the content.

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An example from the book of an illustration and instruction

Each chapter is prefaced by a cartoon and an amusing instruction to herself about what must be achieved ‘today’. On the cover, at the end of each chapter and at the beginning and end of the book, the reader is enticed by the design of the trail of a bee to follow the story further, adding to the attraction of the book design. This certainly encourages the reader to pick the book up and read on.

During the narrative we meet Jess’s family and friends. They provide her with not only moral support but importantly an endless source of contacts offering job opportunities the world over. It is hard not to admire her gung-ho attitude each time she prepares for the first day in a new job, often with no prior experience.

I found Jess’s narration endearing and informative in equal measure and would highly recommend this book to others. I believe it would make an excellent choice for the Big Read as it is so accessible and manages to cover some really important environmental issues.*


*Since this review was written it has been announced that My Name is Leon is the Big Read winner, although we’re sure that our readers will enjoy all of the shortlisted books.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Elephant and the Bee, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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