Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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Smiles for Sale – “Lotus” – a novel by Lijia Zhang

LOTUS is the first novel of Chinese writer Lijia Zhang, who began her working life at 16 in a factory that produced intercontinental missiles, taught herself English by listening to the music of The Carpenters, and now works as a journalist and social commentator in Beijing.

I’ll be interviewing her on Monday on Impact on BBC World News (1330 BST).

“Lotus” is about prostitutes in steamy southern Shenzhen, the city just north of Hong Kong. What they are like, why they do it, and how they came to be there. Zhang says it’s a myth to think the lives of all sex workers are all misery.   At best, they can earn and live for themselves. But at worst – and what an awful worst –  they’re raped and constantly exploited. And that is how many begin.

Like Lijia Zhang’s own grandmother. The novel is rooted in a story revealed on a deathbed, the family secret of her grandmother’s past, sold to a brothel when she was just fourteen.  Continue reading

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Olivia Sudjic’s “Sympathy” – Alice in her online Wonderland.

When does life online shift from broader horizons to tunnel vision?

A new novel called “Sympathy” sends us tumbling down the rabbit hole like Alice. And like her, it makes me feel somewhat nauseous. I might even have to say I dislike the story. That’s not to say it isn’t good – and powerful.   I look forward to interviewing its author Olivia Sudjic on BBC World this week.  Continue reading


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“No Need for Geniuses”. A rather surprising book about history and science.

I interviewed Steve Jones at the Write on Kew literary festival on Sunday. He is Emeritus Professor of Genetics at University College London and from the evidence of his books a very curious author.  

He’s written extensively on evolution and genetics – how did we come to be who we are? – and this book No Need For Geniuses: Revolutionary Science in the Age of the Guillotine  – sweeps through a series of fantastic stories about an extraordinary moment in history, a time and a place, revolutionary France, when a host of academic explorers made tremendous strides – across scientific fields from biology, chemistry and physics to astronomy, meteorology, and ologies I didn’t know existed (like metrology, which has literally changed our world).

When we think about Paris we often think about the arts. That is literally only half the story. As Jones put it, “The scientific landscape of the French capital is, without doubt, the richest in the world”. Continue reading


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Whose #Detroit is it anyway? a story of #Race and #RealEstate

“This is a kind of self-obsession”.

He is self obsessed.  Annoying.  A thirtysomething Yale graduate drifting through life.  A white outsider who stumbles his way through this claustrophobic drama set in a semi-derelict stretch of Detroit.

But his story is a very good read.

The narrator of “You Don’t Have to Live Like This” is Greg Marnier.  He doesn’t know where he stands between insiders and newcomers, dispossessed and profiteer, above all between black and white.  Mostly, ‘Marny’ doesn’t want those “sides” to exist at all, and the reader has to decide whether he’s simply naive or somehow stoking the tensions as the story builds to its racially charged climax.  Continue reading


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Books – a reckoning

In this financial year…

I have LOST time. Extra minutes stolen before running to the tube for work. Guilty pages on the broken bench outside the fitness centre. Secret hours clocked up between sofa and shutters, home alone before shift work with no-one to account to.

I have GAINED so much – from the inside of other peoples’ heads.

Note to self. Try to be more mindful, more measured, less greedy a reader. Here are words to jog memories, from the books I’ve inhaled. An audit, of sorts.

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“The New Middle East” – an eyewitness account.

Trying to take the long view on the fallout from the Arab Uprisings?  Here’s my holiday reading.  Paul Danahar’s “The New Middle East”  uncovers the forces behind the turbulence – religious, economic, historic.  

It also reads in part like a geopolitical thriller because, for much of the time, he was there  – in Tahrir Square with the revolutionaries; in Libya talking to Gaddafi and then seeing the dictator’s brutalized body; witnessing the horror, hatred and hunger that’s destroying Syria.

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