Book Review: Solar Bones

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Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, is the most accurate adherence to stream of consciousness style writing that I have come across. The entire novel, all 223 pages in the edition I read, is presented as one continuous sentence. Do not let this put you off. Despite its apparently mundane subject matter it is an engaging and compelling read.

The narrator is Marcus Conway, a native of the county of Mayo in Ireland. When the book opens Marcus is standing in the kitchen of his family home listening to the Angelus bell ring out from the village church a mile away.

We learn that Marcus has been married for twenty-five years to Mairead, a teacher at a local school. They have raised two children – Agnes who is an artist, and Darragh who is casually working his way across Australia. The committed parents have adjusted to the initial emptiness felt when their grown-up children first moved away. They have settled into a comfortable routine.

Marcus looks around him recalling history as he has lived it through familiar places, possessions and significant events. He is an engineer by profession working for the local council on infrastructure projects. He is frustrated by the influence self-serving politicians exert on the decision making process. He takes pride in his ability to work to a standard.

Raised on a farm he remembers his childhood and then the deaths of his parents. His relationships have at times been rocky as life sometimes is. Mostly though he feels grateful for the chances he has been given. In many ways his is an ordinary life, as he wished it to be.

It did not take long to slip into the cadence of the writing. Its beauty is in the detail, the observations made and insights given. The reader is drawn into the intricacies of this man’s everyday pleasures and irritations. Not a single turn of phrase is dull or misplaced.

A haunting elegy that captures the battles and the beauty of existence. This is an extraordinary, life-affirming read.

Reading the Republic of Consciousness Prize Shortlist

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In mid January I wrote of my plans to read the Republic of Consciousness Prize shortlist (you may read my post here). Between now and the announcement of the prize winner on 9th March I will be posting my thoughts on each book along with guest posts from those of their publishers who chose to take part in this feature. I am grateful to all who found the time to provide me with content.

I had previously read two of the books from the prize longlist which did not make it onto the shortlist. I have since read one other. If you click on a title below the photograph you may read my reviews.

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I had also previously read one of the shortlisted books:

Given the quality of the writing in all of these books I was eager to tackle the remaining shortlist and have not been disappointed. All credit to the prize judges for curating such an impressive selection.

On Friday I will post the first of my remaining reviews – Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). This has already won the Goldsmith Prize and the Irish Book Award Novel of the Year. It was the only other book from the Republic of Consciousness Prize long and short lists that I already had on my TBR pile. All other shortlisted books have been generously provided by the publishers for this feature – a big thank you to them.

Next week I will post my thoughts on: Fine Fine Fine Fine Fine by Diane Williams (CB Editions – who went into semi-retirement just before the shortlist was announced); Martin John by Anakana Schofield (And Other Stories) which was also shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize and the 2016 Ethel Wilson Prize for Fiction; Treats by Lara Williams (Freight Books).

My reviews for the remaining three books on the shortlist – Born on a Tuesday by Elnathan John (Cassava Republic) which was shortlisted for the 2016 Nigeria Prize for Literature and longlisted for the 2016 Etisalat Prize for Literature, Counter Narratives by John Keene (Fitzcarraldo Editions), and Light Box by KJ Orr (Daunt Books) – will follow along with the promised publisher guest posts.

Naturally I am not the only person reading these books. I recommend you check out the reviews being posted by the contemporary small press – A site for small presses, writers, poets & readers as they are excellent.

As a footnote to this introduction I will add one other thing that this exercise has taught me – how to spell consciousness. I have been hashtagging it on Twitter incorrectly for over a month. If you spot me doing this sort of thing again? Please let me know.

Book Review: The Storyteller

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“Do not take this moment lightly. Tread gently on its paths. This time too will never come again.”

The Storyteller, by Kate Armstrong, is a tale woven from the intricate threads of a life damaged by tragedy. Iris Buchanan is teasing the details from Rachel Miller, a young woman she has come to know in the psychiatric hospital where they are both being treated. Iris tells Rachel that she used to write romantic novels and wishes to lay down her life story in this vein. The book is their discussion told from Iris’s point of view.

As Rachel talks of her experiences the reader can see that Iris is adding in her own. She is possessive, at times voyeuristic in her fact gathering. There are echoes of Barbara from Heller’s ‘Notes on a Scandal’ although this is a very different work.

The events recounted are almost an aside to the heightened level of consciousness detailed. Rachel feels deeply: her isolation, the beauty of a sunrise, background noise, the tidy formation of geese in flight. She knows that she must move beyond her sharpened sensory perceptions and her tendency to repeatedly overthink interactions if she is to appear as those she cannot avoid expect.

After a spell in hospital Rachel is discharged and returns to her empty flat. She forms a relationship with a man from downstairs which Iris attempts to weave into a form that she finds pleasing. Rachel insists that elements of the truth as she sees it be made clear.

The setting of the story changes as the narrative progresses. The true and fictional accounts intertwine offering questions of what is memory and what desire.

This is a complex novel with moments of clarity offering hints as to the cause of the women’s mental distress. What is happening can at times be bewildering but is intriguing to read. The women’s quest for social normalcy remains hauntingly elusive, the personal cost of their mental breakdown becoming clear. It is interesting to consider how normal anyone truly is inside their own head; if given the option who would choose to start again.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Holland House.

Book Review: Sealskin

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Sealskin, by Su Bristow, is a poignant love story based on the mythical tale of the selkies – seals that can shrug off their skins to become human. I have read stories involving these beings before and remained unimpressed. Not so with this mesmerising interpretation. I was spellbound throughout, even though I guessed how it must end.

Donald is a young fisherman who lives with his widowed mother on a croft set above their village on a remote coast in north-west Scotland. He is a loner who does what he can to avoid going to sea. The camaraderie of his peers is something he observes but struggles to join in with. His memories of growing up in this small community are of being bullied and teased. He has learned to find his peace in solitude, to defer to his mother when decisions must be made.

On a clear autumn night Donald takes his small rowboat out to check the crab pots he maintains, putting to shore in a deserted cove when he spots naked young women emerge from a group of seals. He comes across their abandoned pelts and guesses what they must be. On an impulse he decides to violently intervene.

A distraught selkie is left with no choice but to accompany Donald to his home. There his mother quickly realises what he has done and concocts a plan that they hope will enable the young woman, who they name Mairhi, to stay. The local people are suspicious of any new face, especially one foisted on them without notice. Donald must step up his behaviour if he is to protect his catch and the child she will eventually bear.

He feels guilt for his actions but his mother convinces him that he must live with the choice he made. She sets about teaching the girl how to act amongst people, how to carry out the tasks expected of the women. They discover that Mairhi also has much to offer them. Donald’s life is altered forever.

The close knit community’s reluctance to accept any who appear different seems particularly pertinent given recent world events. They look away when discomfited by how some of their own treat their families but struggle to ignore that which they cannot explain. Mairhi has innate powers that she wishes to use for good; the dark suspicion with which these are treated puts her at constant risk of rejection.

Donald does his best to provide and make her happy but realises that she remains his captive. Although tolerated by his wider family and becoming a mother to his children, he fears what Mairhi would do if given the choice.

The writing captures the voice of the region to perfection. The harsh and beautiful landscape along with the stoic yet community minded people are expertly evoked.  This is proof that a story need not be original to be worth the telling. Curl up by a fireside and immerse yourself in this exquisite tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the Sealskin Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

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Sealskin in published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Gig Review: Headline’s 2017 Blogger Night

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(photo credit: Georgina Moore, taken from Twitter)

Yesterday I travelled up to London, always a major undertaking for me, to attend a gathering of authors, publicists, bloggers and other book people, organised and hosted by Headline Publishing. It was held on the top floor of their riverside headquarters, Carmelite House, and was my second visit to the building. On this occasion the bitterly cold weather kept everyone inside enjoying the warmth and ambience rather than braving the views from the rooftop terrace.

I had taken my daughter, Robyn (@LeFailFish), as social events can make me anxious and I valued her support. Having collected our name stickers from Jenny (@jrharlow) in the foyer we made our way up to the sixth floor.

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The always lovely Georgina Moore (@PublicityBooks) ensured throughout the evening that everyone felt welcome and included. She introduced us to several of the authors whose books we were able to take away.

I chatted to Alison Weir (@AlisonWeirBooks) about her fascination with the Tudors and the medieval period and now look forward to reading my proof of her latest installment in the Six Tudor Queens series, Anne Boleyn, due out in May. New insights and secrets are promised although Alison ensured that only teasers, not spoilers, were shared last night.

I had a lovely conversation with Gemma Todd (@GemTodd) before realising that this personable librarian is also the author of Defender, which I had spotted early on the book table and eagerly popped into my bag for future reading. This was a popular choice for many attendees.

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Felicia Yap (@FeliciaMYap) and I discussed our love of Belfast where I was raised and now enjoy returning to as a tourist. Visit Belfast (@VisitBelfast) should totally get Felicia to write a piece for them as her enthusism for the city was infectious. Felicia’s debut, Yesterday, is due out in August and I will be hoping for a proof when available.

Copies of Pendulum were also tempting readers on the book table and I had been advising everyone to pick up this taut thriller, a proof of which I read last summer. I was therefore delighted to meet the author, Adam Hamdy (@adamhamdy) and tell him how much I enjoyed his work. He was chatting to a group of bloggers about setting and how he visits each place featured in his story rather than relying on long distance research.

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Meeting other bloggers is always fascinating as we all write for the love of books but often have different perspectives on what we do and how we are recieved. I was particularly pleased to meet Linda (@Lindahill50Hill), Tina (@TripFiction) and John (@Thelastword1962) all of whose reviews are worth checking out.

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Adam, John, Linda and Tina (photo credit: Georgina Moore, taken from Twitter)

There were many other authors, bloggers, publicists, librarians and book sellers enjoying the company and the freely flowing wine. I could have stayed on to pick up writing tips and share book recommendations but, as ever with my trips to the capital, I had a train to catch if I was to make it home. The roads around our village are very dark at midnight – perhaps I read too many thrillers…

Thank you to the team at Headline for inviting me and for organising such a friendly, welcoming event. Also for my goody bag and the opportunity to add even more titles to my tottering TBR pile. Book people are the best.

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Note: hen is my own. In discussing recognition from Twitter pictures I had told John I would bring it to the evening. Next time he wants a live one.

 

Book Review: Pseudotooth

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Pseudotooth, by Verity Holloway, is one of the most unusual books that I have read in a while. It explores the effects of trauma and the crossover between dreams and reality. It asks the reader to consider what they would define as real when ‘pseudo’ events have an impact on everyday life.

The protagonist is seventeen year old Aisling who has been raised by her mother, Beverley, after her father left his pregnant, teenage girlfriend in the care of his maiden aunt, Edythe, and disappeared forever from their lives. They have had little to do with any family members since Aisling was a young child. Beverley, a secretary, is concerned about how she and her daughter are perceived and is struggling to deal with the health issues Aisling is currently facing.

For the past couple of years Aisling has suffered blackouts and seizures. She has submitted to a plethora of tests and spent time in psychiatric care but still no cause can be found. When a doctor suggests her condition may be psychosomatic Beverley loses patience. She cannot cope with the way her daughter looks – emaciated with messy hair, grubby clothes and no apparent desire to improve her life or appearance – and after so long trying to find a solution wishes to move on with her own life. Beverley’s boyfriend has asked her to move in with him. When the doctor suggests that Aisling may benefit from a change of scenery Beverley arranges for her to go and stay with Edythe at the old rectory where the now elderly lady has lived all her life.

Aisling wishes to please her mother and desperately wants to get well. She is frightened by the effects of her illness, exhausted from her inability to sleep restfully, drained by constant nausea that prevents her from holding down food. She packs little for her stay in rural Suffolk – the diary where she writes down her dreams as her doctor suggested, and a volume of poetry by William Blake whose dark words bring her comfort.

Edythe treats her great niece with contempt. She values cleanliness and order as on a par with godliness, the personal problems she believes Aisling has allowed to fester as something that can be sorted with strict rules and determination. Edythe’s brother, Robert, is also being cared for at the rectory. He is kind to Aisling but the secrets he shares with her about the old building’s past start merging with her dreams.

Aisling’s dreams have for some time featured a young man named Feodor. Her diary recounts in detail his often violent history. When a shadowy version of him appears to her whilst awake, around the time she discovers a priest hole in the rectory cellar, her world’s collide. Another young man, Chase, who she met briefly in the rectory garden, emerges as a dream time friend. She becomes a part of his world, a post apocalyptic existence where those deemed unfit and undesirable are made to disappear.

The trauma that triggered Aisling’s illness is touched upon but she has dissociated events, tried and failed to wash the stain of them away. Although she is aware that the world she is currently inhabiting is a dream she is unsure how to return to waking life in the rectory, or even if this is something she wishes to achieve given the happiness she has discovered here. In confronting the dangers faced by Feodor and Chase she learns more of terrible events that took place in the rectory, which Edythe cannot allow to be talked of for fear they besmirch her memories of her revered father. It becomes clear that Aisling’s demons have also been suppressed.

Although vividly portrayed and well written it took me some time to engage with the plot. Many of the early sections of the book are bleak, Aisling’s situation painful to contemplate. By halfway through the pace had picked up and I raced through the final third eager to know what came next. The adventure is fantastical, but then dreams are subject to a different concept of reality, whether dreamt awake or asleep.

This is an unusual fantasy adventure grounded in the dark realities of mental illness and escapist imagination. It is a sometimes challenging but ultimately worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories.

Book Review: Fragile Lives

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“A successful cardiac surgeon is a man who, when asked to identify the three best surgeons in the world, has difficulty in naming the other two.”

Fragile Lives, by Professor Stephen Westaby, is a memoir that is both awe inspiring and heart-rending. It tells the story of the medical career of a man raised in working class Scunthorpe who became a world class, ground-breaking cardiac surgeon before watching his life saving profession being stymied by the NHS bureaucracy that we know today.

The first few chapters cover Westaby’s childhood, inspiration and medical training. Born in the post-war baby boom years he decided young that he wished to be a heart surgeon after watching a television programme, ‘Your Life in Their Hands’, in which American surgeons were able to close a hole in a patient’s heart thanks to the newly created heart-lung machine. Westaby gained entrance to a local grammar school and from there worked towards his dream of medical school. As a teenager he took menial jobs at a hospital, learning as much as he could through observation. His years of medical training at Charing Cross and the Royal Brompton in London brought him to his first surgeries, where he learned that a certain arrogance is necessary for a successful outcome. A surgeon must believe in their own abilities if they are to innovate and thereby save more lives. When a patient is cut open on an operating table the surgeons cannot know exactly what problems they will be required to deal with.

Subsequent chapters look at particular patients whose medical issues Westaby tackled in new ways. Not all of them survive, and those that do are changed.

“extra life is not ordinary life. There’s a price to pay and a second dying to come”

These cases are fascinating if poignant to read. There is an amount of medical detail included but the language used is accessible. Westaby’s confidence in his abilities and willingness to take risks not only saved many of the lives he held in his hands but also led others in his field to do the same. These world class doctors worked together, sharing techniques and outcomes for the good of their patients as well as furthering their own careers.

“For the unfortunate patient, any prospect  of survival depends upon having an experienced trauma surgeon at hand. Few are offered that privilege.”

Westaby worked all over the world and experienced many levels of both staff competence and facility provision. When dealing with a patient who will surely die without intervention, risks seem a price worth paying. This is the way, the only way, that new techniques and treatments can be developed.

A cardiac surgeon must retain a certain detachment as they are dealing every day with the dying who often harbour multiple health issues. Success rates matter. The monetary cost of surgery is high and those controlling the purse strings wish to invest only in proven drugs or equipment.

Pioneering surgery is now threatened by the blame culture. Even proven techniques are being rationed due to the focus on cost, whatever the benefit.

“When a surgeon remains focused on helping as many patients as his ability will allow, some will die. But we should no longer accept substandard facilities, teams or equipment. Otherwise patients will die needlessly.”

By the end of his career Westaby had become disillusioned with the NHS. He had watched too many of his patients die due to a lack of drugs and equipment simply because they are deemed too expensive by non medical decsion makers.

“What mattered was keeping down costs. Death comes cheap.”

Inevitably he looks back on his own younger years with a degree of pride and with more regard than he offers today’s trainees. Setting this aside there is a warning to be heeded. It is understandable that cardiac surgeons feel frustrated with the constraints placed on their ability to work effectively. What this means to the individual patients and their families is the difference between life and death.

Those who believe that the drama of medical TV shows is overplayed should read this book. It is a fascinating account of a career that observed and facilitated huge medical innovation. The effect this had on the patients whose cases are included had me in tears of both sorrow and joy. To anyone with an opinion on the value of national healthcare expenditure, this is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Harper Collins.