Making It by Jay Blades

Have you ever seen a more perfectly titled book? I mean, as Jay Blades is the presenter of ‘The Repair Shop’ and a furniture restorer, he is definitely used to making it.

Jay Blades has become quite a TV star in recent years. As the warm-hearted presenter of ‘The Repair Shop’, alongside presenting a programme supporting people in developing their craft skills in his workshop, with the occasional history programme, and sharing his struggles in learning to read, he has built up quite the fanbase throughout the generations.

Yet, life has not always been plain sailing for Jay Blades, and this autobiography takes us chronologically through his life and his struggles. He does not hold back or sugarcoat any of his past; he tells his story with honesty and shares how he learns from his actions of the past. However, it does make for an emotional read when you realise how easy it can be for some to end up on the wrong path and how, sadly, society did not always welcome with open arms those that it did not see as having the ‘right’ to be in the country.

But Jay Blades has never let anything hold him back, even when he has a breakdown, which he talks about with real honesty. He accepts the help that is around him and the kindness of practical strangers, taking this as a chance to make a fresh start and rebuild his life. And there is an important lesson here for all of us as he makes it clear that it is so important for all of us to talk, understand when we are struggling and ask for help, but especially for men to ensure that they do this, as there is such a ridiculous stigma, still, that seems to stop men from talking about emotions and feelings.

As with all memoirs, to get the full experience, you need to read this book for yourself. I really do suggest you do, because there are so many important stories amongst its pages and, if you are a fan of Jay Blades, you will be a fan of this book.

Everything is Everything: A Memoir of Love, Hate and Hope by Clive Myrie

In October, I was lucky enough to attend Stratford Literary Festival and hear Clive Myrie talk about his new memoir. This was a book that was already on my radar as I have a lot of respect for Clive Myrie as a journalist and television presenter (he was definitely the correct choice for Mastermind). He was also a very nice man when I was lucky enough to meet him after his talk; just a lovely gentleman.

This memoir is an absolute joy to read, and I think it proves that Clive Myrie presents his real self in his life and work. I cannot recall all the stories that appear in a memoir; I mean, then you would not need to read it. However, for me, I enjoyed this because it is a memoir rather than a celebrity autobiography. The majority of the stories are sparked by something in Clive’s childhood or work life, and then it interweaves with events from history or a commentary of events on the world stage (and Clive Myrie has certainly been present at some of them).

This is about the experience of growing up in Bolton as a child of a couple who were from the Windrush generation. It explores the impact of this start in life, for him as a young boy, his parents as they start again in Britain, and his older siblings as they come to join the family in Britain. But it also takes us further, as it looks at the events that Clive Myrie has reported on, the parts of the world he has lived in, and how these experiences have shaped him and his view of the world. There is warmth and humour amongst these pages – but also there is commentary on some of the injustices in the world that we still have based on someone’s race; something you hope that, in the modern world, is no longer an issue, but – as we all know – sadly, it is. There were moments when I found this read incredibly moving; you go through so many emotions as you read this book and it is definitely something that any reader will finding thought-provoking.

I could not put this book down, as it is so beautifully written and is full of so many fascinating stories. This is a book for anyone who is a fan of memoir – not just those who may be a fan of Clive Myrie, but for those who have an interest in social history, political history and the general world that we live in.

Jojo: Finally Home by Johannes Radebe

Any Strictly fan needs to pick this book up – right, that is my blog post done.

Of course I have more to say than that, but it is going to be very clear that I loved this book. I am a fan of Johannes Radebe, as a professional on Strictly he is one of my favourites. He always comes across as such a genuine and kind-hearted soul, who has broken down barriers on the show dancing as a same-sex couple with John Whaite in 2021, as well as having danced male partnerships in some of the professionals dances.

This book takes us from Johannes’ childhood right up to date. And it is like sitting down, listening to a friend and having a chat. Johannes grew up in South Africa, not always having an easy childhood, as he grew up in a society that was not as accepting and liberal as he deserved. Dance became a salvation for Johannes, something that he truly loved and allowed him to express himself. Something that took him away from the turbulent family life due to his father’s actions. As, Johannes grew up he worked hard and carved out a successful dancing career that first of all took him across South Africa, across the world and has landed him in London – a place that now feels like home.

There are moments that brought a little tear to my eye, but also moments that have you cheering Johannes and his supporters along. It is such an honest memoir of his life and career: seeing how Johannes blooms to become the figure that we will know and love from Strictly Come Dancing. And an icon and strong voice amongst the LGBTQ+ community.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

Sometimes, a book comes along that feels like one that you should always have read – and ‘Bibliomaniac’ by Robin Ince is one of those for me.

I popped this on my possibility pile for ‘Non-Fiction November’, as it has been sitting on the tbr pile since my bookish trip to Bath last year, where I found a lovely signed edition in Topping and Company Booksellers of Bath (which is one of the bookshops visited in the adventures of Robin Ince – so, it seems the perfect place to have picked it up from).

Robin Ince takes us along with him as he travels the country to attend book events at a number of independent bookshops and book events. In the process, ‘Bibliomaniac’ becomes a love letter to books, bookshops and booksellers.

If you are a book lover, you will feel a real connection to this book and the words of Robin Ince – he, as the title suggests, declares himself a ‘Bibliomaniac’, and I think that so many of us reading this would probably agree that we are the same – with the same idea that it is almost impossible to walk past a bookshop without going in, and sometimes it is even harder not to leave with a book.

There is a lot of talk of fantastic charity bookshops and how they often lead you to purchase books that you did not even know you needed, on the subject of all sorts of things that you did not even know that you are interested in – but, for me, that is often the beauty of bookshops and libraries, as they lead you to worlds that you may not have even realised are out there.

Robin Ince’s writing style is a joy to read. It is like reading (or listening to) a friend just share their love of books and their adventures. The book felt like it was offering company, putting into words how books make me feel and how important they can be in people’s lives. Especially as they offer such company and comfort to us at so many different times in our lives. This book will make you smile and make you laugh; it will add to your wish list and make you wonder if you have too many books – or question if there is any such thing as too many books…?

If you are reading this, you will already love books – and, so, I would suggest that you would love this book, too. So, if you are looking for something to read that may be a little different, this will be the book for you.

One-Armed Jack: Uncovering the real Jack the Ripper by Sarah Bax Horton

I was kindly gifted a copy of ‘One-Armed Jack: Uncovering the real Jack the Ripper’ by Sarah Bax Horton, by the lovely Tandem Collective UK.

As someone who has a passion for history and loves a good mystery, this was a great book to have the chance to be on a readalong for. We have to all admit that we have probably heard of the crimes of Jack the Ripper, and there have been so many who have tried to work out exactly who this infamous character was (as the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ was penned by the media of the day). And the case has, of course, been hitting the headlines again in recent years as we look at reframing history to remove the sensationalisation of the crimes, while ensuring that the women are remembered for the real people they were, and not just as the victims of this figure. Hallie Rubenhold’s book ‘The Five’ starts this very important conversation, reframing that historical narrative to bring ‘her-story’ and not just ‘his-story’ to the world.

But I digress; let us return to ‘One-Armed Jack’. This book was an absolutely fascinating read, bringing us not just the history of ‘Jack the Ripper’, but also ensuring that the canonical five (just as Rubenhold did) have their story shared too (as well as others who may also have been the victim of Jack the Ripper when you look at the actions of such a serial killer).

I do not want to give spoilers to this true crime book as, realistically, it is still a thrilling read that brings us evidence that allows her to prove why exactly she (and others) believe that Hyam Hyams could well have been the man we know as ‘Jack the Ripper’. I found all this work and evidence incredibly interesting, and I can see exactly why this man may well have been in the frame. And, maybe just the lack of expertise in policing at the time – as we all know that things have to develop and improve – may have been the reason why he was never really discovered in Victorian England.

I find the study of Hyam Hyams as a figure intriguing in this book, and it becomes very thought-provoking when the experiences of his past are used as evidence as to why he may have committed such terrible crimes. Yet he would not have been the only person (sadly) in Victorian London who may have had such an experience. As his life goes on, you see that some of those of experiences would not be to unique to him – so, really, why do some chose one path and others a different one? It is easy to see why people have such a keen interest in true crime and those who commit it – but what this book does so well is to not glamourise it, which we know some media outlets have been accused of previously.

This book is one that I will definitely be encouraging people to read if they have an interest in this piece of history – the social history, as well as the particular story of Jack the Ripper. I think a clear case is made – with evidence – that Hyam Hyams could well have been the man that evaded the authorities for so long. However, it is clear that we will never really know; there is no way that anyone can tell us for certain – so maybe we will always have to have an open mind, and there may well be others who decide to investigate another figure.

But, for now, ‘One-Armed Jack’ is a book you should read if you’re looking for a well-researched and clearly laid out case that could potentially identify ‘Jack the Ripper’.

Playing Under the Piano by Hugh Bonneville

I saw a review on a book-related app which stated that this book was ‘too actory’. I have to admit that this made me giggle, as I am not sure what you would expect from the memoir of a British actor.

However, I did not find anything about this book a negative reading experience. In fact, I agree with the quote on the front from Celia Imrie (another National Treasure) that this book is ‘deliciously witty’. It is, in fact, an absolute joy to read, especially for anyone who has an interest in British theatre, TV and film, and those who have graced each of these areas.

Hugh takes us through his journey to becoming an actor, from his childhood to his life on the stage and his time in some of our nation’s favourites, such as Downton Abbey. He shares stories from his family as well as from his professional experience and, at moments, I found myself crying (rather awkard, as at one moment I was reading this book on the train on the way to work) as he shares the loss of his mother, brother and father. Hugh Bonneville writes with such charm, passion and emotion that this memoir is very difficult to put down.

I am not sure it is possible to fangirl as you read a book, but I loved reading about his encounters with some of my favourite actors such as Dame Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent and Iain Glen (to name but a few). And, as someone who enjoys seeing as many Royal Shakespeare Company productions as possible, Hugh Bonneville’s time with this company was something that I found particularly interesting.

If you have an interest in British theatre, actors, films (and a little bit of TV), and what really happens behind the scenes, then this is the book for you. It may be ‘actory’, but that is exactly what you need it to be – and it is a gem of a memoir that I will return to read little snippets of, because there are so many delightful anecdotes amongst its pages.

Taste: My Life Through Food by Stanley Tucci

My reading of non-fiction has been a little behind this year. I think this is probably because I have been using reading as a real key to escapism for the last year with this slightly strange world that we have been living in.

However, I am a Stanley Tucci fan (I mean, who is not?) and, because of this, I thought I had to pick up ‘Taste’, his memoir created through his love of food, and, well, that felt like escapism to me. Especially as I had watched his TV series ‘Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy’ and that had been some wonderful escapsim, so I thought his book probably would be too.

This book was brilliant. There is little more that I can say about it. Stanley Tucci has such a natural writing style that it reads like a friend is just chatting to you about their life and the important part that food has played in their life story. This book is in no way pretentious, it is just a memoir that happens to connect to Tucci’s love of food. I found that I just wanted to keep reading it all the time as I escaped to America and Europe through Stanley Tucci’s tales about his culinary adventures. I mean, the additional anecdotes about his career and the odd friend who may happen to be in the acting world is just an additional treat sprinkled occasionally through the book. (Do not read the Thank Yous first if you are prone to tears when you read – this is a mistake I made and just reinforced why I happen to be a fan of two TV and film stars I am sure we will all know.)

However, this book is also a bit of a love letter to food, especially when Tucci shares his experiences with oral cancer and, of course, how that impacted his relationship with food, but also all the positive experiences he used to have with food and how he had to rebuild that after his cancer.

This is definitely going to be one of the contenders for book of the year for me – well, it could even simply be my non-fiction book of the year right now. Now, I may just pop off and find the audiobook, as I hear that it is also rather wonderful.

Quite by Claudia Winkleman

I have been really looking forward to reading ‘Quite’ by Claudia Winkleman. She is a figure who makes me smile each week we are treated to Strictly, but also I am a fan of her BBC Radio 2 Saturday show.

I found ‘Quite’, well quite a life-affirming read. Through a collection of mini-essays, Claudia (after all you feel as though you are on first-name terms) covers all sorts of areas of life and how she sees you can make the most out of life. And, often, I found myself agreeing with many of the ideas and having appreciation for many of the same things.

However, the most important idea I took from this book, is ‘be yourself’; after all, as the saying goes, ‘everyone else is taken’. In short it is important not to waste time and opportunities, because you may miss out on some of the simple joys around you.

I found this book a joyful read and am willing to take a chance to worry less – especially about my eyeliner – and, quite simply enjoy life the way I want to.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

This is a book I am ashamed to say has been on my shelf for quite some time. I had meant to pick it up for ages, but I just never got the chance. However, 2021 was the year – and what a fantastic read it was.

Michelle Obama is a woman who I have admired for a long time. She has always just seemed to present herself in such a calm, professional but determined manner. Someone who appears as truly supportive of her husband and, of course, loves her family. I am so pleased that, as I read this memoir, that is exactly who Michelle Obama is.

This book tells us about Michelle Obama’s childhood in Chicago and the determination she had to go to university and gain a career for herself. It is clear how her early life influenced her values and attitudes as she met her future husband and started a family of her own.

We learn about her life as First Lady, as her husband Barack Obama takes the role of American President for two terms. It is clear that she keeps her values at the front of everything she does and always works to contribute as positively as she can to a country she loves.

As a teacher, it really struck me how highly Michelle Obama regards education of all kinds, but especially education of girls all around the world, to ensure that they reach their full potential.

This book is a really inspirational read. Michelle Obama writes in an engaging manner with warmth, emotion and charm. I really don’t know why I waited so long to read this book – so, if you have ‘Becoming’ on your shelves, pick it up because it really will be a highlight.

Dictators by Frank Dikotter

To continu with non-fiction November, I picked up ‘Dictators’ by Frank Dikotter. This was my choice because, as a history teacher, you always seem to be sharing knowledge of some of the famous dictators of history – how they get there always seems to make sense, but how they successfully stay there always seems to be harder to explain. I am always without a doubt asked why nobody stops them, and the obvious answer is always the fear many of them used to control. But also, as this makes clear, ‘ordinary’ people really did support them – however hard that is for some of us to believe.

This book is absolutely fascinating as it guides you through the history of eight 20th century dictators. And, it really explains how they managed to build up such a cult following which led to them having genuine support from their people. A ‘misguided’ idealism from each of the men led to them establishing their regimes. However, there was also a carefully crafted celebrity status created for each of these men, either by themselves or by those that surrounded them.

I found it interesting how similar at points the tales of these characters of history were. And that, in fact the biggest threat to any dictator and their regime is themselves.

This is a great book for any fans of moder history. A concise overview of some figures of history and a well-written and clear to follow guide to some of the 20th century’s most infamous figures.