Book Review: White Spines

white spines

Nicholas Royle collects books. He does not choose titles he wishes to read, although often he will read them. What he seeks is an aesthetic. He trawls second-hand bookshops, including charity shops, searching for suitable spines to place on his bookshelves. He could buy on-line but this doesn’t appeal. The potential for discovery when browsing eclectically curated displays in shops is a part of the pleasure he derives from his pursuit.

White Spines focuses on his Picador collection, from when the imprint was mostly consistent in cover design (1970s to 1990s). He also finds what he describes as anomalies, adding these to the back of the double stacked white shelves on which he places his finds. Although pleased when a book is in good condition, he values inscriptions and inclusions – ephemera placed by a previous owner between pages and then forgotten when the book is donated.

This is very much a book for lovers of books. Royle takes the reader on a journey around the country describing where and how he found particular titles. There is an element of memoir as he has been collecting these books for decades. His various jobs over this time have granted him access to those in the writing business – authors, publishers, agents – whose names and works will be familiar. Knowing of his obsession, some have gifted him white spine Picadors. Royle cites one incident when he solicited such books as payment, something the author involved may have subsequently regretted agreeing to.

When travelling, for whatever reason, visits to second-hand bookshops feature. Finds are described lovingly, cover artwork appreciated. There are occasional transcripts of overheard conversations, or of interviews conducted as additional research. A digression into the issues faced when another author shares your name was of interest. Short sections describe some of Royle’s dreams.

There is a degree of melancholy looking back at the time when Picador published these uniform editions, when there was more trust and freedom amongst those tasked with choosing authors and titles. Of course, it is only with hindsight that readers can see how certain of the writers and artists found lasting success. There were also those whose work was pulped without telling them.

This history certainly adds to the appeal of the book, but it is Royle’s knowledge and ability to write with enthusiasm that draws the reader in. An enjoyable window into the life of an unapologetic collector. A call to appreciate books for more than their words.

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

my picadors

Robyn Reviews: Circus of Wonders

‘Circus of Wonders’ is a gritty yet engaging slice of historical fiction, following the life of Nell as she is thrust from quiet village life into the blood, sweat, and glitter of Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders. It’s beautifully written, drawing the reader in and building a gorgeous sense of atmosphere and tension throughout. When the curtain falls – as it must – the story lingers. This isn’t always a happy story, but it’s an evocative and worthwhile read.

In the year 1866, Nell picks violets for a living. Her entire world is her beloved brother, her swims in the sea – and the disdain from the rest of the village for the birthmarks covering her skin. When Jasper Jupiter’s Circus of Wonders arrives in her village, Nell’s insular life is thrown into disarray. Sold by her father to Jasper Jupiter as his newest curiosity, she finds herself alone – but, for the first time in her life, she also finds herself admired rather than scorned. Slowly, she finds friendship – and fame. But fame is a fickle beast, and the higher Nell flies, the further she has to fall.

The novel is told from three perspectives – Nell’s, Jasper Jupiter’s, and Jasper’s brother Toby’s. Each lends the story a slightly different angle – but while each is initially cast into a role, as the story goes on each casts free from their initial mooring, becoming far more complex than they first appeared. Nell starts as the victim. Set apart by her birthmarks, she is the subject of mockery in her village, and even her loving brother sees her as different – and thus inferior. When her father sells her, it’s the lowest moment in her life – she feels lower than an animal, trapped in a cage. However, as time passes, she goes from the victim to the hero, the star of the show. The fame is addicting, glorious – and she grows drunk on success, dreaming of dizzier and dizzier heights. She can’t connect to a simple village life like her brother’s any more – not when she can be such a wonder. However, for all her glory, she’s still trapped – still that animal in a cage. Her thoughts on the dichotomy are fascinating. Nell isn’t always likeable, but it’s still impossible not to root for her, and fear for her inevitable fall.

Jasper, of course, starts as the villain. He’s marched into Nell’s peaceful village and purchased her like a prize pony. He’s a bully, beating his workers when they don’t do what he wants and forcing everyone to play along to his whims. He expects the women to cater to his pleasure, and he’s certain Nell will fall in line. However, even villains have other sides to their story. Jasper is selfish and needlessly cruel, but he’s also wounded and grieving. He’s naive, taking risks without paying attention to the consequences. He sees himself as a genius, fills himself up with his own importance – and no-one in his life holds him accountable. No-one ever has. Jasper is a horrible person, but more of a spoilt child than someone deliberately calculating and cruel. His fall is as predictable as Nell’s and, despite everything, by the end it’s hard not to feel sorry for him too.

Where Nell and Jasper are protagonist and antagonist, Toby is the supporting cast. As a child, Toby dreamed of the circus he and his brother would create together – but while Jasper has the strength, charisma, and attractiveness to be a star, Toby is seen as dull. Simple. The sort of person who can only fade into the background. Toby has spent his entire life in his brother’s shadow. He longs to step into the spotlight himself, but he can’t – he’s too scared, and he can’t betray his brother. Initially, Toby is the sort of character to be pitied. However, as his role grows and he starts to take more control over his life, he becomes far more complex. By the end, Toby is my favourite of the main characters. He isn’t entirely a good person – he’s done some awful things, and been complicit in far more – but he’s exceptionally loyal, and he always tries to be better than he is.

The atmosphere this novel creates is incredible. The circus seems to live and breathe, every sense hit in some way. MacNeal creates visceral images – not always pleasant, but always a feast for the senses. The plot is almost secondary to the simple feel of the circus in motion. There’s a constant underlying tension. The performers twirl across the stage, reaching dizzier and dizzier heights – but at some point the curtain will come down, and the show will end. The only questions are what the final act will be – and what happens next.

The denouement, when it happens, is a predictable but fitting end. There’s an epilogue, offering a little insight into the fallout. I have mixed feelings about epilogues – I’m a big fan of ambiguity, and allowing readers to muse on their own endings – but this is one of the stronger ones, still leaving the door open for the reader to fill in the gaps.

Overall, ‘Circus of Wonders’ is an engaging piece of historical fiction with an exceptional sense of atmosphere and characters who linger. A recommended read.

Thanks to NetGalley and Picador for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Picador
Hardback: 13th May 2021

Book Review: Brood

Brood, by Jackie Polzin, is a story that blends the joys and challenges of hen keeping with the evolving experiences of a middle aged woman living in Minnesota, USA. It is a bittersweet tale but never cloying in its depiction of life and loss. The writing is honest and to the point, a clear eyed take on the curveballs to be dealt with as time goes by. A hen keeper myself, I found the observations of the feathered ladies delightful. The author has captured the essence of the relationship formed when a small number of birds are kept, ostensibly for eggs, not quite pets but still individually cared for.

The nameless narrator is married to Percy, an academic. They have kept four hens in their back garden for the past four years. When the tale opens, Percy has applied for a job at a prestigious university in Los Angeles. If he is offered the position, the hens will have to be rehomed.

Through the bitter cold of winter, into spring and then the heat of summer, the challenge is to keep the hens alive.

“Life is the ongoing effort to live. Some people make it look easy.”

“The chickens don’t care about my gestures toward life in a traditional sense, but most of the time they don’t die, which is the most primitive form of gratitude.”

As well as caring for her home and hens, the narrator works as a cleaner. Her friend, Helen, is a real estate agent and needs properties polished to a shine to create the best impression for potential buyers. The narrator finds this work soothing, despite the memories it evokes of a terrible event suffered while doing the job several years ago. In certain important aspects, her life has not gone in the direction she desired and envisaged.

Chapters are kept short and direct offering snapshots of the narrator’s day to day life and her thoughts on issues she is faced with. The reader is offered glimpses of friends, neighbours, the narrator’s mother, and Percy. Readers will also get to know the personalities of the four hens.

“While there is no agreement on the subject of chickens and words, there is agreement that chickens speak only of the here and now. A chicken does not speak of the day before. A chicken does not speak of tomorrow. A chicken speaks of this moment. I see this. I feel this. This is all there is.”

It would be easy to seek out metaphors from the behaviour of the hens in this story but I preferred to read it as a straightforward depiction of the woman’s life and its constraints. She is practical and rarely prone to emotional outbursts. She feels deeply but is accepting of what she cannot change.

There is a recollection in the book that particularly resonated. The narrator views a painting in an art gallery that she had seen several years previously but reacted to quite differently then. It offered a reminder that the lens through which we look at the world will always be coloured by ongoing personal experience, that little of what we do or say can ever be entirely objective.

Although lightly told there is a depth of feeling in the quirky yet accomplished writing that held my attention and made me care. The shadow of sadness in the narrator’s life is just one facet of the many practicalities she must deal with. The strength and calm acceptance she digs down for, to live in the moment as her hens do, is a quality I can admire.

An enjoyable read albeit one tinged by loss and the lasting impact of grief. The hens add heart and humour, as they do in real life.

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

Book Review: The Glass Hotel

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“What kept her in the kingdom [of money] was the previously unimaginable condition of not having to think about money, because that’s what money gives you: the freedom to stop thinking about money. If you’ve never been without, then you won’t understand the profundity of this, how absolutely this changes your life.”

The most important thing to say about The Glass Hotel is that it was a pleasure to read. The characters are fully formed and complex, doused with a realism that keeps the reader interested in their fates. They each have a purpose in the unfolding plot that adds nuance and depth. There are many inter-relationships and passing cross-references to parse, enabling a consideration of varying perceptions. I enjoyed the author’s habit of dropping titbits from the future as the timeline moved back and forth across decades. This served to provoke curiosity in how the character would reach the future development in their life trajectory.

What I wasn’t so impressed with was the denouement. By choosing to open the story with a brief reveal of the ultimate fate of a key character, I was left disappointed when the detail was added and a conclusion built. Having savoured the skill with which the author writes, I turned the final page and felt dissatisfied. Perhaps I was simply unwilling to go with the author’s suggestion of possibilities.

The glass hotel itself is a luxury destination on a remote peninsula in Canada, where the moneyed may relax and feel detached from their busy lives. It is here that Jonathan – who specialises in investments – meets Vincent, a bartender who grew up nearby. Their families, friends and business associates form the core of the pool of characters.

The story is set between 1958 and 2029, with certain years particularly eventful. How to make money, and why it is required, is a recurring theme. The focus is on those who were not born into wealth so had to find a way to acquire what they needed – to both survive and then live a life aspired to. There are explorations of the morality of choices made – how characters justify their actions, if only to themselves.

Vincent has an older half-brother, Paul, who harbours ambitions to be a composer and musician. He is also a drug addict, always resenting that Vincent got to live with their father. The dynamic between these two as they reach adulthood offers a fine study on the psychology of family.

Jonathan’s first wife – his confidante and mother of their daughter – dies of cancer. He is the owner of the glass hotel and visits regularly, seeking investors. His life revolves around his business although he enjoys his wealth, using it as a symbol of his success. When he takes on a much younger woman to be his new wife, it is mutually beneficial but not a love match.

Over the decades, the story follows several of Jonathan’s investors, some of whom regard him as a friend. The author touches on their lives lightly but always adding to development. These artists and businessmen rarely consider the financial cushion on which the rest of what they do has been built.

Money can be made and also lost, the impact of which inevitably varies. Certain characters need the respect they believe financial success accords them. Others find a way to move forward, but always with thoughts of what might have been. There is anger and also bewilderment.

Although the plot is engaging and offers much to mull over, this is a character driven story. Perceived success is depicted as a veneer; life as a state of flux, relationships mostly a masquerade. Roles played and compromises made affect self-esteem.

The writing is a master class in building anticipation, the structure aiding progression at an assured pace. The various characters may at first glance appear vanilla but by delving deeper into their psyches they offer up dilemmas more widely representative.

Any Cop?: I may not have felt satisfied by the ending, yet this was still a story well worth reading. Its complex themes never detract from the ease of engagement. A lingering thought provoking tale in myriad ways.

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Pull of the Stars

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Pull of the Stars is set in 1918 Dublin. The World War has killed or scarred a generation of young men from all over Ireland. Memories of the Easter Uprising – a step towards independence for the country – remain divisive and raw. Meanwhile, in a large city centre hospital, Nurse Julia Power is working tirelessly to quarantine and treat expectant mothers who show signs of an unfamiliar and exceptionally deadly flu virus. As well as taking out large numbers of the wider population, the contagion has affected many of the hospital’s healthcare workers. Those who remain must cope with the overcrowding as best they can.

Over the course of three days, Nurse Power works with two women whose influence will linger. Doctor Kathleen Lynn (based on a real person) has ambitions to help the poor and destitute – including ‘unwanted’ children – but is on the run from the police. Bridie Sweeney, a volunteer helper on Julia’s small, makeshift ward, will open the nurse’s eyes to the horrors of the Catholic Church’s treatment of those who have no choice but to turn to it for succour.

Let’s pause a moment. This is historical fiction with a compassionate and talented nurse as protagonist. It includes a love story. There are obvious good characters and bad. On the face of it I would have little interest in reading such a tale. I picked it up as the author wrote Room. From that remarkable novel I was aware she could bring depth and grace to an unimaginably dark situation. Her characters thrum with the essence of all it means to live.

Nurse Power works the twelve hour daytime shift, handing over to a nun from a local motherhouse to see patients through the night. Unlike many of the nurses, Julia does not live in the hospital dormitories. Her brother returned from the war damaged but well enough that they may share a house, taking on mutually beneficial roles.

Thus we have a female, educated professional. She is unmarried but not alone. Her life does not revolve around a coterie of friends requiring her time and support. She is independent, practical and portrayed without recourse to her looks. She focuses on her job rather than a search for a partner. I found this refreshing, so rare is it to find such a character in fiction.

Given her background, Julia has had little social contact with someone such as Bridie, yet finds herself drawn to the vivacious positivity of her new assistant. Both must take on roles that would not be countenanced in more normal times – acting decisively rather than seeking permission from superiors. There are deaths among their patients, with beds filled again as soon as they are vacated. Births are as dramatic and potentially dangerous as ever with the added challenge of flu complications.

The narrative exposition brought time and place to vivid and exigent life. It was inevitable that I would compare this Dublin to our current times. The author states that her final manuscript – started at the centenary of a flu epidemic that killed an estimated 3 to 6 percent of the human race – was delivered to her publisher just as Covid 19 restrictions were imposed.

Yet it was not this timeliness that drew me in. I found myself intrigued by the treatment of women during birth as much as by the attempted management of a deadly and virulent contagion. It was clear that married women at the time were expected to produce babies with damaging regularity. Meanwhile, the unmarried were punished severely if they dared reproduce. The Catholic Church guarded its influence – the evils perpetuated not yet widely acknowledged. Women were at the mercy of their families, with shame falling on them if they dared admit abuse. The small ward on which Julia works becomes a microcosm of Dublin society. Here, though, there is no favouritism, although outcome varies by wider privilege.

All this is skilfully woven into a story of people and those charged with their care. Many social issues are touched upon – the writing style remaining engaging throughout. The denouement left me with questions but was made to seem plausible enough. There is much to chew over in the expectations of women – their choices (or lack of) and priorities.

Any Cop?: An enjoyable and well structured tale that has lingered beyond the final page. Although interesting to read of a pandemic during a pandemic, it is the character studies that provide depth. My expectations of the author’s storytelling talents were not disappointed. Perhaps best avoided, though, by the primigravida.

 

Jackie Law

 

#NotTheWellcomePrize 2020 reviews Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson and War Doctor by David Nott

With the Wellcome Book Prize on hiatus this year, an unofficial Not the Wellcome Prize is being run (with permission) to showcase some of the best health-themed literature of 2019. This has been organised by Rebecca Foster (@BookishBeck) who invited me to participate. My avoidance of blog tours was overcome by my fondness for the Wellcome Prize.

To find out how the winner of the Not the Wellcome Prize 2020 will be decided, read Rebecca’s post here.

Today, I am reposting my reviews of two fabulous books that are in contention.

 

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson
(published by Picador)

Constellations is a collection of fourteen essays written by an eloquent storyteller. Each celebrates the imperfect body – its workings and failings. There are musings on wider attitudes to ownership and behaviour. The stories told are incisive and highly personal. They cover a variety of the author’s lived experiences including: bone disease, cancer treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, and death. As a woman growing up in Ireland she has shouldered a burden of expectation against which she quietly rebels.

Alongside periods of incapacitation, the aloneness of illness, are many joyous moments of freedom and adventure. The author writes of: music, dancing, travel, relationships. There is an underlying generosity in her attitude to the world she inhabits, “making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

She expresses a wish that her children, especially her daughter, may live their lives to the full and not be curtailed by

 “Those who go out of their way to avoid your good news,
who flash facsimile smiles when the world smiles on you,
The people who are too afraid to try to do
what you will one day do.”

The essay titled ‘Hair’ explores society’s attitude to women who choose to grow or shave off their tresses:

“Every time I’ve shaved my head, or sported a suedehead of regrowth, there is always a response, especially from men. They are mostly horrified or bemused; some declared it attractive: but I was always asked to justify myself.”

These unasked for responses to changed looks, or to actions deemed unfeminine and therefore unacceptable, are recounted in many of the essays. Too many people appear to believe that women require guidance, that they cannot be expected to know what is best for them.

In 60,000 Miles of Blood’, the author explores attitudes to this vital liquid when it leaves a host’s body. A soldier shedding their blood in battle is regarded as heroic. A woman’s monthly menstruation is shameful. An artist using blood in their work is berated. There are always opinions on what may be done with one’s own body and its constituents.

“Art is about interpreting our own experience. Upon entering hospitals, or haematology wards, our identity changes. We move from artist or parent or sibling to patient, one of the sick. We hand over the liquid in our veins to have it microscoped and pipetted. Beneš used his art as tenancy. If hospital tubes could house his blood, so could his own work. Beneš knew that if his blood had to be anywhere other than in his veins, he might as well use it as an aesthetic agenda; a declaration of possession.”

Moving on to the subject of parenthood, the author writes of how this has brought with it both joy and pain. As children grow they travel ever further away, carrying their parents’ intense love for them lightly.

There is a thread on feminism running through many of the essays. A woman’s pain is not always taken seriously by medical professionals. A mother is expected to put her children’s needs before her own. ‘Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy’ looks at abortion in Ireland and the 2018 referendum on the issue. It wonders at the mindsets of those who oppose a woman’s right to choose a termination.

“Ireland is scornful of its girl children. The state can and does oppose what a family/a woman/a pregnant person believes is in their best interest. A born girl has no more rights than an unborn foetal one.”

“A writer friend overhears a group of twenty-something men talking on a train. One, full of swagger, says he doesn’t ‘want to give them that’, insinuating that women are uppity and asking for too much wanting to control their bodies.”

‘Second Mother’ tells of a beloved aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s and how the family could only watch as the person they had known and valued faded away, mind before body.

‘Our Mutual Friend’ is a reminder of the precariousness of life and the pain of grief. It is an intensely moving tribute to a young man whose life ended unexpectedly.

The writing throughout is percipient and exquisitely rendered, arguments expressed with clarity and compassion. Although important and at times emotive, vital issues are presented with grace.

Every entry in this collection was a pleasure to read.

 

War Doctor by David Nott
(published by Picador)

In a growing field of medical memoirs War Doctor stands out for its purpose – to increase awareness of the reality of modern warfare on the individuals and communities directly affected. The author has volunteered his services as a trauma surgeon in active war zones including: Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Chad, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Gaza and Syria. He pulls no punches in his descriptions of the horrific injuries and personal dangers encountered in each of these places. By describing the treatments offered as he attempts to patch up bodies torn apart by weapons designed to inflict maximum damage, his story avoids polemic. Rather it is a humane account of the many good people risking their lives to help those caught up in evil deeds carried out by those seeking to gain or hold on to power in a region.

David Nott spent his early years in rural Wales before moving with his parents to England. He studied medicine at the Universities of St Andrews and Manchester, staying in the north of England for his Junior Doctor years. He realised during this time that he wished to work in war zones where his surgery could make a significant difference. He set out to gain relevant experience.

“I’d need a fantastic breadth of knowledge in general surgery, which I was on the way to achieving. And I realized it would also be good to know a lot about vascular surgery, too: if I was to spend time in dangerous places, I’d be seeing and dealing with a lot of injuries from bullets or bombs, and knowing how to clamp off blood vessels would be essential.”

Nott’s first consultancy post was at Charing Cross Hospital in London. Surgeon friends there told him about Médecins Sans Frontières, an organisation offering short placements abroad for medical personnel. With agreement from his employer, Nott was able to take unpaid leave from the NHS and go on his first mission – to Sarajevo in 1993.

Over the course of the following decades he would travel to sites of conflict gaining a wealth of experience working in the most challenging environments, often with minimal supplies and equipment. Chapters detail a number of these placements focusing on patients who left key impressions. As a reader it is difficult to comprehend how those who caused the injuries could inflict such pain and suffering on their fellow human beings.

Much of the book focuses on memorable surgeries carried out in makeshift hospitals. With a constant stream of all but destroyed bodies arriving, decisions needed to be made quickly about who it would be worth treating. On one occasion a man required every unit of blood available in the city. When he subsequently died the question of how many others would die for want of a blood transfusion lingered.

On a mission in Africa Nott treated pregnant girls as young as nine years old – victims of rape whose pelvises were not developed enough for full term births – who were brought to the camp hospital after many hours in labour to have their now dead babies removed in an attempt to save the mother’s life. In Afghanistan he witnessed the public spectacle of punishments meted out under Sharia law, Taliban style.

“women being stoned to death after being buried up to their necks in sand; women being placed beside a wall they had built with their bare hands and killed after a truck was driven at the wall at high speed. […] I was astonished and sickened by the cruelty that one human being could bring to bear on another, and it filled me with revulsion. The football stadium was full of people watching and I wondered what they all felt. Were they completely inured to it?”

The impressions left by such monstrous behaviour increasingly affected the doctor when he returned to his job in London. During a private consultation he all but lost it when a patient complained about how she suffered due to unsightly thread veins.

On a mission in Aleppo, Nott noticed that patients would arrive with similar injuries that changed each day.

“Abdulaziz told me that he’d heard that the snipers were playing a game: they were being given rewards, such as packs of cigarettes, for scoring hits on specific parts of the anatomy. […] This sick competition reached its nadir towards the end of my time there when it appeared that one particularly vicious and inhumane sniper had a new target of choice: pregnant women.”

The author treated several of these women whose babies had been shot in utero. It was this experience that finally drove him to try to publicize the horror of what was happening in Aleppo once he returned to London. The media showed interest and he began to offer interviews and share pictures taken. Harnessing his increasingly public profile, Nott sought to help those now trapped and in imminent danger in Syria.

Given the horrors recounted, this book could be challenging to read yet much of it comes across as hopeful due to the determination of the medical teams to continue to offer treatment whatever else is happening in their vicinity. Nott includes many instances when his efforts were unsuccessful, and examples of risks he took that with hindsight were foolish. He does not paint himself as a hero but rather as a man who relished the adrenaline rush of danger. Nevertheless, it is hard to do anything but admire the tenacity and bravery of all the medics.

The writing is precise and succinct but retains a compassion for the suffering of those whose lives have been stripped to a struggle to survive in unimaginable conditions. Details of the medical procedures are fascinating and described in accessible language. And yet, with so many wars included there is a feeling of despair when considering what man is capable of inflicting. Nott admits that his work has left him in need of therapy for PTSD.

I mentioned that the stated purpose of the book was to raise awareness and in this it succeeds. It is, however, difficult to know what to do with such awareness in a world controlled by the egocentric – venal governments willing to turn a blind eye to atrocities carried out by extremists. Whilst being a moving, balanced and insightful account of the horror of war and the commitment of medics, it is also a harrowing read.

 

Book Review: Station Eleven

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, opens with the death of a famous actor, Arthur Leander, while on stage playing King Lear. The theatre is in Toronto and outside a snowstorm is approaching. Witnesses to the actor’s collapse, along with those close to them, form the cast of characters the story will swirl around as it moves backwards and forwards along a timeline spanning several decades. Arthur’s deathday is also the day the Georgia Flu arrives in North America, carried in by passengers traversing the world by aircraft. The known and accepted modern world is about to radically change.

Shakespeare lived in a London coping with recurring outbreaks of plague. The virulent illness that wipes out most of the population in the contemporary setting of this tale is even more devastating. Survivors are few and basic infrastructure soon fails. Systems taken for granted – tap water, electricity, mechanised transport, medication, long distance communication – are no longer available. Food must be grown or hunted locally. Items such as clothing and weapons are scavenged from the remnants of the lost civilisation.

Twenty years later a company of musicians and players travels between small communities in the Great Lakes area providing entertainment – mostly classical music and Shakespearean plays. Their mantra is ‘survival is insufficient’ and they are usually welcomed as a distraction from the limited locality people now inhabit to stay safe. The dangers inherent in the early years, after the pandemic decimated North America’s population, have largely receded. Still, though, there are those who will kill to attain their own skewed agenda. Amongst them is the Prophet whose acolytes believe their names were inscribed in the Book of Life, and that those who died were being punished for their sins. This is not the only cult in the slowly recovering territory.

When the travelling players encounter the Prophet they do not heed the warnings until it is too late to avoid the effects of falling under his gaze.

The backstories to key characters are presented, weaving them together. Celebrity and success are explored alongside ambition and various relationships. An underlying theme is one of regret when one’s actions and life trajectory are considered with hindsight. What turns out to be important may not be that which demanded so much time and effort.

Although quite obviously dystopian, I found the story uplifting. Those living in the small communities mostly help each other, working for the common good. There are dislikes and transgressions – people remain flawed and some do terrible things. With man’s footprint on earth limited, however, nature thrives amongst the ruins of his former creations.

The writing is fluid and compelling. Moments of reflection and tension are well balanced, easily maintaining reader engagement. The story is immersive and consistent, with pleasing touches such as the recurring comic book motif. The denouement pulls key threads together whilst allowing for ongoing speculation.

With a more literary bent than many novels in the genre this could appeal to those who normally eschew fantasy fiction. I found it an enjoyable and satisfying read.

Station Eleven is published by Picador.

My copy of this book was given to me by my daughter.

Book Review: War Doctor

In a growing field of medical memoirs War Doctor stands out for its purpose – to increase awareness of the reality of modern warfare on the individuals and communities directly affected. The author has volunteered his services as a trauma surgeon in active war zones including: Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Chad, the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Gaza and Syria. He pulls no punches in his descriptions of the horrific injuries and personal dangers encountered in each of these places. By describing the treatments offered as he attempts to patch up bodies torn apart by weapons designed to inflict maximum damage, his story avoids polemic. Rather it is a humane account of the many good people risking their lives to help those caught up in evil deeds carried out by those seeking to gain or hold on to power in a region.

David Nott spent his early years in rural Wales before moving with his parents to England. He studied medicine at the Universities of St Andrews and Manchester, staying in the north of England for his Junior Doctor years. He realised during this time that he wished to work in war zones where his surgery could make a significant difference. He set out to gain relevant experience.

“I’d need a fantastic breadth of knowledge in general surgery, which I was on the way to achieving. And I realized it would also be good to know a lot about vascular surgery, too: if I was to spend time in dangerous places, I’d be seeing and dealing with a lot of injuries from bullets or bombs, and knowing how to clamp off blood vessels would be essential.”

Nott’s first consultancy post was at Charing Cross Hospital in London. Surgeon friends there told him about Médecins Sans Frontières, an organisation offering short placements abroad for medical personnel. With agreement from his employer, Nott was able to take unpaid leave from the NHS and go on his first mission – to Sarajevo in 1993.

Over the course of the following decades he would travel to sites of conflict gaining a wealth of experience working in the most challenging environments, often with minimal supplies and equipment. Chapters detail a number of these placements focusing on patients who left key impressions. As a reader it is difficult to comprehend how those who caused the injuries could inflict such pain and suffering on their fellow human beings.

Much of the book focuses on memorable surgeries carried out in makeshift hospitals. With a constant stream of all but destroyed bodies arriving, decisions needed to be made quickly about who it would be worth treating. On one occasion a man required every unit of blood available in the city. When he subsequently died the question of how many others would die for want of a blood transfusion lingered.

On a mission in Africa Nott treated pregnant girls as young as nine years old – victims of rape whose pelvises were not developed enough for full term births – who were brought to the camp hospital after many hours in labour to have their now dead babies removed in an attempt to save the mother’s life. In Afghanistan he witnessed the public spectacle of punishments meted out under Sharia law, Taliban style.

“women being stoned to death after being buried up to their necks in sand; women being placed beside a wall they had built with their bare hands and killed after a truck was driven at the wall at high speed. […] I was astonished and sickened by the cruelty that one human being could bring to bear on another, and it filled me with revulsion. The football stadium was full of people watching and I wondered what they all felt. Were they completely inured to it?”

The impressions left by such monstrous behaviour increasingly affected the doctor when he returned to his job in London. During a private consultation he all but lost it when a patient complained about how she suffered due to unsightly thread veins.

On a mission in Aleppo, Nott noticed that patients would arrive with similar injuries that changed each day.

“Abdulaziz told me that he’d heard that the snipers were playing a game: they were being given rewards, such as packs of cigarettes, for scoring hits on specific parts of the anatomy. […] This sick competition reached its nadir towards the end of my time there when it appeared that one particularly vicious and inhumane sniper had a new target of choice: pregnant women.”

The author treated several of these women whose babies had been shot in utero. It was this experience that finally drove him to try to publicize the horror of what was happening in Aleppo once he returned to London. The media showed interest and he began to offer interviews and share pictures taken. Harnessing his increasingly public profile, Nott sought to help those now trapped and in imminent danger in Syria.

Given the horrors recounted, this book could be challenging to read yet much of it comes across as hopeful due to the determination of the medical teams to continue to offer treatment whatever else is happening in their vicinity. Nott includes many instances when his efforts were unsuccessful, and examples of risks he took that with hindsight were foolish. He does not paint himself as a hero but rather as a man who relished the adrenaline rush of danger. Nevertheless, it is hard to do anything but admire the tenacity and bravery of all the medics.

The writing is precise and succinct but retains a compassion for the suffering of those whose lives have been stripped to a struggle to survive in unimaginable conditions. Details of the medical procedures are fascinating and described in accessible language. And yet, with so many wars included there is a feeling of despair when considering what man is capable of inflicting. Nott admits that his work has left him in need of therapy for PTSD.

I mentioned that the stated purpose of the book was to raise awareness and in this it succeeds. It is, however, difficult to know what to do with such awareness in a world controlled by the egocentric – venal governments willing to turn a blind eye to atrocities carried out by extremists. Whilst being a moving, balanced and insightful account of the horror of war and the commitment of medics, it is also a harrowing read.

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

Book Review: Constellations

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Constellations is a collection of fourteen essays written by an eloquent storyteller. Each celebrates the imperfect body – its workings and failings. There are musings on wider attitudes to ownership and behaviour. The stories told are incisive and highly personal. They cover a variety of the author’s lived experiences including: bone disease, cancer treatment, pregnancy, motherhood, and death. As a woman growing up in Ireland she has shouldered a burden of expectation against which she quietly rebels.

Alongside periods of incapacitation, the aloneness of illness, are many joyous moments of freedom and adventure. The author writes of: music, dancing, travel, relationships. There is an underlying generosity in her attitude to the world she inhabits, “making wounds the source of inspiration, not the end of it.”

She expresses a wish that her children, especially her daughter, may live their lives to the full and not be curtailed by

 “Those who go out of their way to avoid your good news,
who flash facsimile smiles when the world smiles on you,
The people who are too afraid to try to do
what you will one day do.”

The essay titled ‘Hair’ explores society’s attitude to women who choose to grow or shave off their tresses:

“Every time I’ve shaved my head, or sported a suedehead of regrowth, there is always a response, especially from men. They are mostly horrified or bemused; some declared it attractive: but I was always asked to justify myself.”

These unasked for responses to changed looks, or to actions deemed unfeminine and therefore unacceptable, are recounted in many of the essays. Too many people appear to believe that women require guidance, that they cannot be expected to know what is best for them.

In 60,000 Miles of Blood’, the author explores attitudes to this vital liquid when it leaves a host’s body. A soldier shedding their blood in battle is regarded as heroic. A woman’s monthly menstruation is shameful. An artist using blood in their work is berated. There are always opinions on what may be done with one’s own body and its constituents.

“Art is about interpreting our own experience. Upon entering hospitals, or haematology wards, our identity changes. We move from artist or parent or sibling to patient, one of the sick. We hand over the liquid in our veins to have it microscoped and pipetted. Beneš used his art as tenancy. If hospital tubes could house his blood, so could his own work. Beneš knew that if his blood had to be anywhere other than in his veins, he might as well use it as an aesthetic agenda; a declaration of possession.”

Moving on to the subject of parenthood, the author writes of how this has brought with it both joy and pain. As children grow they travel ever further away, carrying their parents’ intense love for them lightly.

There is a thread on feminism running through many of the essays. A woman’s pain is not always taken seriously by medical professionals. A mother is expected to put her children’s needs before her own. ‘Twelve Stories of Bodily Autonomy’ looks at abortion in Ireland and the 2018 referendum on the issue. It wonders at the mindsets of those who oppose a woman’s right to choose a termination.

“Ireland is scornful of its girl children. The state can and does oppose what a family/a woman/a pregnant person believes is in their best interest. A born girl has no more rights than an unborn foetal one.”

“A writer friend overhears a group of twenty-something men talking on a train. One, full of swagger, says he doesn’t ‘want to give them that’, insinuating that women are uppity and asking for too much wanting to control their bodies.”

‘Second Mother’ tells of a beloved aunt who suffered from Alzheimer’s and how the family could only watch as the person they had known and valued faded away, mind before body.

‘Our Mutual Friend’ is a reminder of the precariousness of life and the pain of grief. It is an intensely moving tribute to a young man whose life ended unexpectedly.

The writing throughout is percipient and exquisitely rendered, arguments expressed with clarity and compassion. Although important and at times emotive, vital issues are presented with grace.

Any Cop?: Every entry in this collection was a pleasure to read.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Sincerity

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Poetry, perhaps even more so than prose, is deeply personal in both the writing and the reading. When it hits the mark its effect can be visceral. In a sizeable collection such as Sincerity there will likely be certain poems that do not resonate quite so deeply. Structure and use of language can still be appreciated even when the intended significance remains elusive or opaque.

The issues explored in this collection travel through personal memories to a wider worldview. There are allusions to Trump – ‘Gorilla’ is particularly amusing – and other powerful figures from taught history. In common is their narcissism and view of the insignificance of those who have served them, whether by choice or coercion.

From ‘The Ex-Ministers’:

“And when they are here, they are unseen;
Chauffeured in blacked-out cars to the bars
in the heavens – far, glittering shards –
To look down
on our lucrative democracy.

Though they have bought the same face,
so they will know each other.”

The lack of empathy in certain politician’s reactions to Grenfell is compared to Aberfan.

The homeless and cruelty of factory farms warrant separate mentions.

Other historic figures featured include kings and queens of old. ‘What Tennyson Didn’t Know’ posits that Queen Victoria could have used her grief at widowhood as a disguise, enabling her to live a life previously denied.

Literary notables also feature‘Charlotte imagines the frustrations felt by the Brontë sister of that name.

“the prose seethes, will not let you be, be thus;
bog-burst of pain, fame, love, unluck. True; enough.
So your stiff doll steps in the dollshouse parsonage.
So your writer’s hand the hand of a god rending the roof.”

Amongst the more personal musings are reflections on the passing of time. In remembrances from childhood there are poems reflecting the boredom and mischief of holidays, and the dryness of schooldays:

From ‘Dark School’,

“Dark school. You learn now – the black paintings
In their charred frames; the old wars;
the voiceless speeches in the library,
the fixed equations – ab invito.
Above the glass roof of the chemistry lab,
insolent, truant stars squander their light.”

A parent laments their empty nest. A grown child experiences their parent’s death. Shade and influence are cast from beyond the grave.

Burgling is a clever take on the rarity and value of silence for a writer – a reflection on a retreat taken despite the business of other commitments.

“I steal a silver sonnet and leave sharpish”

Although love and relationships are recurring themes these are never sugar coated. The faults of parents are remembered alongside their more positive attributes. Gardens and woodland spark cherished memories.

In ‘Physics, a marriage avoided in the past is regarded as a wise decision. Alternative scenarios are imagined that do not proceed to the much vaunted happy ever after of the institution.

“You walk towards me across the terrace,
all I want of love
in that world –
correct when you promised
all would be well. Well,
then again, I feign sleep at your footfall
and we are in Hell.”

Death is considered in several of the poems but not feared. The paths walked by the famous are visited with interest but also in the knowledge that it is the cemetery that now holds their names.

The collection closes beautifully with the titular poem, spare and elegiac.

“I look up
from the hill at Moniack
to see my breath
seek its rightful place
with the stars
and everyone else who breathes.”

Any Cop?: This varied collection contains much of note – the humour and sagacity lifting the wide ranging musings; their broad scope remaining grounded and at times piercing. It is an enjoyable if not always easy read. Complex, colourful and humane, it is a worthy swansong for Duffy’s tenure as Poet Laureate.

 

Jackie Law