The best books about conditions which people say don’t exist but do

Anna Lyndsey Author Of Girl in the Dark: A Memoir of a Life Without Light
By Anna Lyndsey

The Books I Picked & Why

Snowflake, AZ

By Marcus Sedgwick

Book cover of Snowflake, AZ

Why this book?

A totally distinctive coming-of-age novel, set in a desert community where people with environmental illnesses are forced to live, far away from the everyday chemicals and wireless gadgets which make them sick. The author gets so much right about the emotional fallout of this falling away from the normal: the ache that never quite goes for the old life that has been lost; the new bonds that form between disparate characters finding themselves in the same boat; the corrosive extra layer of societal contempt and disbelief (“of course it’s all in the mind…”). which makes these already devastating illnesses even harder to bear - and the lurking temptation of suicide. I gasped with recognition on almost every page. It’s a YA novel, but who cares?

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The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

By Kate Moore

Book cover of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

Why this book?

In the 1910s and 20s in the USA, young women were employed to illuminate the numbers on dials with radium paint. In the years that followed the women began to suffer mysterious agonising illnesses as their jaws rotted and their spines collapsed. So far so tragic – but what I found totally devastating and gripping were the monumental battles that followed as the companies and their paid doctors and scientists fought to deny what was happening to protect their profits. And I was absolutely inspired by the courage of the women who kept fighting for the truth even as one by one they died. What so shocks me is all the moves in the “corporate denial” playbook feel so modern – because hey, they’re still in use today.

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Brazzaville Beach

By William Boyd

Book cover of Brazzaville Beach

Why this book?

The compromising of science in close-up, claustrophobic microcosm as determination to preserve reputation, funding, and status battles emerging, inconvenient, horrifying truth. I was gripped by the power struggle between the guru-like head of a chimpanzee research centre and a young uncompromising researcher observing chimp behaviour which does not fit the accepted narrative. It's incredibly specific and also at the same time incarnates something absolutely universal. I will never forget it – it got right into my head and stuck.

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By Joanna Kavenna

Book cover of Zed

Why this book?

A dystopian future that's so close to now it made me squeal. Mega-techcorp Beetle is in charge of – well, basically, everything: CCTV, your household appliances, virtual assistants, robot cops, predicting the future... Only one problem: individual human cussedness/autonomy – the elusive variable Zed – keeps gumming up the algorithms and really shouldn't exist. I love the way the Beetle founder and his assiduous employees just can't see why their beautifully controlled society is quietly driving its citizens nuts with despair. Apart from my constant horror-laughter of embarrassed recognition, there's a scene involving robot hospital orderlies which is one of the most chilling things I have ever read.  Do we really want a future like this?

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Incandescent: We Need to Talk about Light

By Anna Levin

Book cover of Incandescent: We Need to Talk about Light

Why this book?

A warm, glowing book, like having a conversation with a sane, intelligent friend. I learned so much about light (and I thought I was an expert!): for example how modern LEDs produce light in a fundamentally different way from all previous human light sources. And I learned about politics too: how a fudge of obfuscated health risks, dodgy carbon-saving assumptions, and eco-virtue-signalling led to other bulbs being banned while light pollution soars. Levin, a wildlife journalist (her descriptions of the rhythm of light in the natural world are just beautiful) was motivated to explore all this because of her own painful, disabling reactions to low-energy bulbs (a deeply politically incorrect problem to have). She soon found she was a) absolutely not alone and b) no one else wanted to know…

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