Welcome to our weekly Books Digest where we round-up the new books you should, and shouldn’t, be reading. This week features When We Were Birds by Anyanna Lloyd Banwo, A Class of Their Own: Adventures in Tutoring the Super-Rich by Matt Knott and Emotional: The New Thinking about Feelings by Leonard Mlodinow.

For more books take a look through our Books Digest Archive.

When We Were Birds by Anyanna Lloyd Banwo (Penguin Books), £14.99.

Alice Crossley

When We Were Birds tells the story of Darwin and Yejide, two strangers living in the Trinidadian city of Port Angeles whose futures are destined to become entwined. Taunted by the hunch that he might find his estranged father amongst the city’s bustling streets, down-on-his-luck gravedigger Darwin moves to the city in search of financial stability but has to leave behind his mother and their Rastafari faith to do so.

At the same time, Yejide’s mother is dying and her daughter is about to inherit her matriarchal legacy of being able to talk to the dead; the women of Yejide’s family are both human and not — they descend from the Corbeau, mystical birds that fly east at sunrise and “transform and release” the souls of the dead.

The Fidelis graveyard becomes an unlikely setting for their love story to play out in, as Darwin and Yejide are thrown into adulthood and find themselves questioning their heritage and their future, only to find each other at the end of every answer.

Banwo effortlessly entwines magic realism, romance and a Gothic ghost story to create a beautiful and emotive work of writing. The characters leap off the pages and the imagery whisks you straight onto the streets of Port Angeles; When We Were Birds is a hauntingly beautiful debut, certain to become a classic. 


A Class of Their Own: Adventures in Tutoring the Super-Rich by Matthew Hammett Knott (Orion Publishing), £16.99.

Saffron Swire

When Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy overnight, hundreds of thousands of students graduated head-first into a crippling recession. Within this luckless “class of 2008” was Matt Knott, a plucky Cambridge graduate with dreams of pursuing an award-winning filmmaking career (dreams now realised). The financial crisis may have put plans to take Hollywood on ice, but when the graduate received a text from his friend Zoe, his fortunes drastically changed. After hearing Zoe was making “£30 an hour helping kids with homework,” Knott saddled on down to the big smoke to meet Phillipa, who headed up an elite tutoring agency. “Don’t worry about experience,” said Phillipa, “you went to Cambridge. Clients love that.”

“Love” would be an understatement. Knott’s A Class of Their Own: Adventures of the Super Rich reveals the farcical extremes the 1 per cent will go to secure their children places at the country’s top-tier schools, treating anyone who has Oxbridge on their C.V as a “designer label.” From his vantage point as a tutor to the privileged, Knott wields his pen and describes a flabbergasting cast of characters. We get to peer inside London’s most opulent mansions and meet the real housewives of Highgate, Kensington and Chelsea.

Readers are also treated to Knott’s risible tables of globetrotting around the world. He goes to Moscow and is spanked by a Russian oligarch with a birch branch, is forced to ski in St Moritz and fears he may “decapitate the heir to the Rothschild fortune”, he watches pheasants get shot out of the sky in Hampshire, goes on safari in Kenya, and even has an affair with “Gustav the Butler” in the rolling hills of Tuscany. You can’t help but wonder how on earth he managed to fit in rounds of verbal reasoning and algebra in-between the seemingly bottomless rounds of caviar and champagne? 

Throughout the book, Knott litters the pages with chucklesome anecdotes and witticisms but it is his background as a son of two teachers, that shapes the tongue-in-cheek narrative. Due to a generous staff bursary, Knott himself attended a prestigious boarding school and rubbed shoulders with people who spent Christmas in Barbados while he clipped on a cheap bow tie and earned “£4 pouring champagne at weddings.” His own educational background meant he saw first-hand how the “other half lived” and when he began tutoring, he couldn’t help approach teaching with a “minor victim complex, and a lifelong insecurity around rich people.” But this is far from a flaw, and in fact, it is A Class of Their Own’s greatest asset as an unputdownable outsider/insider account of the utter absurdity of the super-rich.

Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings by Leonard Mlodinow (Penguin Books), £20.

Lily Pagano

Whether we like it or not, we feel emotions every day. From the drive of lust and love to the protective function of fear and anxiety, emotions are fascinating on both a social and scientific level. But what are these sensations we have come to class as emotions? How do they arise in our brains, and how do they influence our everyday thoughts and decisions? In his latest book Emotional: The New Thinking About Feelings, Mlodinow goes beyond the conventional view of emotion as an obstacle to ration and reason and instead highlights their significance in our everyday lives and in our evolution as a species. 

Writing with conviction, Mlodinow draws on the social, cultural, neurological and cognitive aspects of emotion. We are taught the difference between natural reflex and emotional response and how emotion is tied into everyday action. With a clear and well-written introduction, Mlodinow is at first quite convincing in his claims. However, it is easy to be swept away by his enthusiasm – his language borders on evangelical as he seems to become victim to confirmation bias – seeking out the importance behind emotions to the point where, as a reader, one becomes cross-eyed at the word.

The book alternates between anecdotal evidence, short study summaries and concludes with what feels like a quick-fix guide to emotional regulation – acceptance, meditation and self-expression. The studies are well-described and interesting, and the stories – including those of his parents’ survival of the Holocaust – are moving. However, what is lacking is the core of science – theory and explanation.

Despite Mlodinow’s claims of a bold new theory of emotions, what follows is nothing ground-breaking. The material is an interesting and light-read for those who wish to dip their toes into the world of thought, but for those wanting a plunge into our deep psyche, you will be disappointed.