Tuesday, 19 September 2017

This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay

Wow. For 95% of this book, I was imagining how I’d write it up; praising its hilarity, its pace, its wit. I was going to do a big paragraph about how much I loved all the Harry Potter name swaps. I was going to gush about how Green Wing this whole book is in its absurdity and farcical “you couldn’t make it up” vibes… about how entitled some of the British public are. How stoic, how bonkers how utterly unfit for walking the Earth unsupervised and being allowed to operate heavy machinery. I was going to talk about how the author definitely knows how to regale his audience with almost Keaton-esque timing…It’s all in here. But the last entry, the last major incident that Dr Kay deals with in his career as an ObGyn senior registrar is chilling to the point where all of the funny, human warmth of the other 250 pages kind of feels distant and like it happened in a different book. I think the last 5 pages of this book is going to haunt me forever.

What starts off as a hilarious but illuminating peek behind the curtain into the operation of NHS hospitals becomes a very sobering biography of a beloved institution on the brink of collapse- a diary of a man with a scalpel and a wipe-clean hoover desperately trying to keep things running in a system that seems designed to make everything grind to a bloody, crunching halt. Not because of these greedy, workshy doctors that won’t turn up for a Saturday shift and are only in Medicine for the special parking space and the rivers of cash, but because there are simply not enough doctors to do all of the things that need to be done so that people don’t die. The ratio of work to sleep/home/sustenance sounds like something out of a PoW camp. The normal rules of workload, work/life balance and being awake enough to function simply do not apply and it is both horrifying and fascinating.

I’m worried now that writing this so soon after finishing the book (within 30 minutes) has made me err on the side of glumness, so I just want to reiterate what a (and I do not use this phrase lightly or without a trace of self hatred) laugh out loud book this is. I read half of it in one sitting, sat in a plastic chair in the King’s Mill Hospital A&E waiting room, watching the giant, rusty, beloved behemoth that is the NHS in motion. I marveled at the smiley, efficient nurses as I tried to stifle snorts about the likelihood of French holiday homes, or hold in a horrified WTF face at the “degloving” story. But I was always, always amazed at the commitment, the proficiency and the sheer iron will of Adam Kay and his colleagues, who soldiered on long after any normal person would have understandably collapsed in a snotty, tearful mess. These people are superheroes that don’t even realise they are extraordinary.

I urge everyone with eyes to read this. Partly because it’s painfully funny, partly because it’s pretty much the whole of human experience wrapped up in scrubs and then bled on. Mostly though, because nobody could read this, this dispatch from the frontline of an NHS hospital and fail to recognise what an asset it is, what a good thing we have here and how ESSENTIAL it is that we protect it. Nobody could read about these men and women repeatedly jeopardising their own home lives and happiness for the wellbeing of total strangers and not feel compelled to defend and protect the NHS and all who sail in her with their last, gurgling breath. READ IT!!

Monday, 17 July 2017

Frozen Charlotte, by Alex Bell

Motivated by a sudden and unexpected tragedy born of messing around with a Ouija Board app, Sophie heads off to the moody, weather-beaten Isle of Skye to stay with the kind-of-cousins she met once and only once when she was a small child. 16 year old Cameron is a broody musical prodigy with a hand injury that prevents him from achieving greatness. 15 year old Piper is perfect- the sweetly smiling hostess who seems too good to be true. 7 year old Lilias is strange and once tried to cut her own skeleton out. Rebecca is dead and has been for 7 years. Their father, Sophie’s kind of Uncle James, is either the most gormlessly absent parent in the world, the most wilfully ignorant, or he genuinely doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of his weird offspring.

Rebecca is the one that started it all- the spirit that Sophie tried to summon, the probable reason for the tragedy, the reason Sophie is on Skye. All Sophie knows is that her kind-of cousin died in an accident at her family’s home. So it turns out that the Skye house has a tragic and accident-prone history and that strange things have happened there for a long time. Rebecca was acting oddly before she died, and the family seem very reluctant to talk about her, or any of the similarly odd behaviour exhibited by Lilias. Intrigued, and a bit afraid, Sophie is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Rebecca’s death, as she is convinced it connects with a death in her own life.

The novel lays its cards on the table pretty early- there is a ghost, level of malice unknown, let’s see what she wants, and there are creepy dolls that whisper to the children. Lilias claims they tell her to do bad things, even when she doesn’t want to. Each chapter begins with 4 lines from the Frozen Charlotte ballad, a poem that inspired the production of the dolls and a tune that threads the most chilling parts of the story together. The book was vaguely atmospheric, aided mostly by the wind and Dark Tom, the shrieking parrot. Personally I found the writing basic to the point that it felt robotic- I guess I wanted more emotion, more menace, more sensation. I felt like Sophie was just running a bit of commentary on what was happening, not feeling much of any of it.

I did like the psychological warfare that Cameron and Piper were engaged in- each one is determined to paint the other as the villain of the piece by dropping carefully chosen facts and suggestions out of context. Not sure of the full stories, at the mercy of the information drip fed to her, Sophie becomes less and less sure who’s telling the truth, who she can trust and which of the three cousins is the most dangerous.

Also, if you live in a house that was a school over 100 years ago, why on Earth would you keep the school’s stage in your living room? Why would the blackboards still be up? If you’ve got one kid that wandered off into the frosty night and died, why would you not keep a better eye on your remaining 3? Maybe check once in a while that they’ve not deteriorated into some sort of psychotic fog? Why don’t people trust their own eyes?

Frozen Charlotte was an easy enough read with the occasional spooky moment, but for me it lacked atmosphere and suspense. I found Sophie to be a bit of a limp protagonist and after how much I had enjoyed Fir, also in the Red Eye series, I think I had very high expectations for Frozen Charlotte that just weren’t met. Kids are always asking me for horror books, and the China Doll trope is very well known, so I don't think it will lack readers, this one just didn't do anything for me.

Friday, 7 July 2017

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

I understand that this is the third part of a trilogy, but I haven’t read either of the first two, so I’ll be viewing it (fairly or unfairly) as a standalone. It works- I didn’t feel like I was missing a load of back story or context, plenty of post-apocalyptic novels start after the collapse of society. I usually prefer ones that do- I find the establishing of a new humanity to be much more fascinating than the flight from danger/disease/violence, whatever shape the apocalypse takes.

No Dominion is set seven years after The Sweats, a pandemic of fever which saw most of (I assume) the world wiped out. The book begins on the Island of Orkney, where survivors have carved out a functioning, democratic society. Enough for there to be freedom, enough food to eat, houses to live in and no Sweats. We begin with an Easter celebration with a drunken stand-off between a native Islander, Magnus, and a bullish thug of a man named Bjarne. They row about their adopted teen kids, who seem to be pairing off in a way that boys and girls have since the beginning of time. Shug, Magnus’ adopted son is a surly, defiant 15 year old, convinced there is more to life than the island. Willow, ward of the bullying Bjarne and his jealous wife Candice is a rebellious, confident young woman that seems to be the cause of a lot of upheaval at home. During the party, trio of newcomers arrive- there is tension, newcomers are rare, but Stevie, the president of the Orkneys arranges for them to be quarantined and to join the community.

In the days that follow, Candice turns up at the President’s office to beg them to take Willow away. She is convinced the teen has cast a spell on her husband and is trying to ensnare him. Stevie is not convinced that is *actually* what’s going on, but keep to keep peace and due to her deep distrust of Bjarne, she offers to relocate Willow. Fifteen, after all, is adult enough to take care of yourself in the post Sweats world. The following day Magnus goes to confront Bjarne about a beating inflicted upon his son. He discovers the dead bodies of Candice, Bjarne and every other animal in their household. Willow is gone. So is Shug. So are a bunch of other teens and a toddler, apparently spirited away in the night by the newcomers, who are also missing.

Stevie, her dog Pistol and Magnus set off on a crusade to Glasgow to locate their missing kids, and hopefully return them to Orkney. The Island’s children have been raised in a reasonably democratic, protective society that gives its citizens freedom- who knows what set ups they have in Glasgow and every remaining village on the way- such naive and trusting kids would not last ten minutes. It never seems to occur to the pair that their teens might not want rescuing.

There were things I liked- I always love exploring emerging power dynamics in ruined worlds, the former nobodies that grab the opportunity presented by an apocalypse to re-cast themselves as villains, tyrants and overlords. The feudal societies they create, the willingness of people to cede power for the chance to feel vaguely normal again. The trade-off of freedom for security. I thought this book handled the various sorts of society that might spring up in a post democratic world, though they were all visited quite briefly and in quite an episodic way. The religious cult, the slaver, the feudal lord-of-the-manner- I would’ve liked more time to explore these, but for our protagonists time is of the essence. Also, if there is a next book, please revisit the band of badass teen girls building the resistance in the Petrol Brothers’ territory. I was so disappointed that they waltzed out of the story so early, they had so much potential.

I liked Magnus and Stevie, they were interesting people, easy to root for. Other than vague recollections of Stevie’s London life of tubes and Tinder and Magnus remembering stand up gigs and motorways, they kept their pasts to themselves. Possibly because long-time readers will know their backstory, possibly because to survivors, the past doesn’t matter much. Such mystery kept me intrigued and maintained a good dynamic between the pair with a good amount of chemistry.

What I didn’t like.

Towards the end of the novel, Magnus and Stevie meet an old man and his child lover, a guitarist of indeterminate gender in an abandoned shopping centre. It really made me double take to see this character literally referred to as “he/she” and “it”. Like, I’m not bothered if No Dominion is not a trying to make (or avoid) a massive statement about gender politics with the inclusion of this guitarist character, but that’s not on. Their role in the novel, as a semi-feral , neglected tunnel dweller turned activist and ‘lover’ of a man old enough to be their grandfather, is intended to demonstrate that abuse and manipulation can be disguised as kindness, not to make a statement about gender in a ruined world. However. An androgynous or genderless character, whatever their part to play in the narrative, deserves better than “he/she” and “it”. How hard is it really to do a singular They? I just felt such narration was completely at odds with the until-that-point voice of the novel and as a reader, it stood out on the page as a NEVER DO THAT and it kind of ruined the whole thing.

It’s definitely not in the same league as Station Eleven or After the Flood, which is what it will probably be compared to, but it holds the attention with its fast pace and is straightforward enough. Perhaps a little too straight forward. I feel like it was a tad episodic, as Stevie and Magnus propel themselves from one hostile situation to another, fighting, tricking and talking themselves into and out of settlements and societies. Personally I found the ending quite unsatisfying- it felt super rushed, a bit of a weak pay off for so much build up and journeying. Plus, there’s a textbook case of Deus ex Machina to finish the whole thing. I realise now that it never surprised me with its plot. There were a few arresting moments or images, but for the most part it brings nothing new to the Post Civilisation genre.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Shiver the Whole Night Through, by Darragh McManus

I’ve had this in my giant Read For Work When You Get The Chance pile under my desk since it came in based entirely on the title. I was expecting something gloomy and noir, a murder mystery with Twin Peaks forest vibes and potential Leadbelly/Nirvana soundtracks.

Kind of. It wasn’t as noir as I expected, and I certainly wasn’t expecting a character investigating their *own murder*. Shiver The Whole Night Through is essentially a paranormal romance with some detective work and supernatural badness thrown in, set in n a gloomy Irish town with a tragic, famine related history.

When we first meet Aidan Flood, he is teetering on the edge of the town’s ancient bridge, about to plunge to his self-inflicted death. He has endured months of merciless bullying and psychological torture because his then GF cheated on him, and sees suicide as his best option. Being cheated on is honestly the reason. I feel like this is one of the book’s weakest aspects- I can’t imagine a scenario where this is believable. Kids can be ruthless devils, everyone knows this. You do not need to invent such a weird reason for someone to be bullied. Being poor, as Aiden is, or a bit of a loner, as Aiden also is, is motive enough for him to become a target. The GF cheating story just felt completely unnecessary and redundant and kind of weakened the book’s premise for me.

Anyway, he decides against death at the last minute and goes home- only to discover the following morning that Sláine McAuley, a popular, beautiful, clever girl that was the year above him at school, has been found dead in the haunted Shook Woods. The town is bereft. The police say hypothermia; Sláine simply laid herself down in the cold and froze to death, no matter how out of character it might sound. Unconvinced, Aiden refuses to believe that Sláine was suicidal. Not that he has ever spoken to her…but she didn’t bully him. His suspicions are confirmed when he receives creepy, frozen messages telling him “I didn’t kill myself”. Drawn to the scene, Aidan returns to the woods to look for clues, or to catch the killer, or mope…but what he finds is more unusual than that. It’s Sláine- not alive, but not entirely dead either; a powerful, more beautiful than ever, ghost like entity. And she wants answers.

Together, Aidan and Sláine delve into the town’s tragic history and examine some of its shadier characters in an attempt  to discover who killed her and why, and if the murder is in some way connected to the unnaturally long, sub-zero winter the town seems to be caught up in. Just the town. The rest of Ireland is fine, it’s just the town and the surrounding woods and mountains. Meanwhile, some kind of feral animal is savaging the school’s numerous bullies, leaving them mangled and half dead- they all have one thing in common, Aidan.

I absolutely loved the setting- the mountains and the woodland that made the town so isolated, the reason it suffered such devastating losses during the famine. The author really did a great job of creating that neglected, shabby town vibe. The problem families that think they’re the Corleones, the dodgy estates, the crummy high streets. I really liked Aidan as a character, he was such a real person. Yes, he was quite annoying, smoking too much because he thought it made him edgy, being a dick to his adorable best friend Podsy, feeling sorry for himself and brooding endlessly on why life is So Unfair. Though Aidan is a bit melodramatic, he really aspires to get out of there and live a life, which is interesting considering where we first meet him. He’s an interesting character, and his inner monologue is always compelling, even if it doesn’t always make sense. Definitely not flawless, he would annoy the hell out of me for sure. But teenagers are often like that- it’s the age where you start to *understand* how messed up everything is, and how miniscule  your capacity to change any of it.

Once I’d cast off the shackles of logic, this book was actually genuinely engaging and enjoyable, like a really Irish episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where as long as you don’t think too hard about the practicalities of a mortal human dating a supernatural creature, you’ll do just fine. There were things that didn’t make sense, like why Sláine would choose to reach out to a boy she doesn’t know, how obsessed Aidan gets about his ghost girlfriend, the bullying motives, and the ending is a bit of a Scooby doo special…however. The writing is top notch, really atmospheric and foreboding, successfully combining Irish history with the supernatural and the old school, ancient power of the forest. The prose was really impressive, and successfully papered over some of the logic gaps that I might otherwise have had a hard time with.

So though it sounds like a bit of a mixed bag, I still enjoyed reading this novel and would definitely recommend it to Murder Mystery readers and fans of Paranormal Romances. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read a PR, I’m not sure I’d have read this if I’d have known that was the core plot. But I’m all for new things. Not as much Nirvana/Leadbelly as I’d hoped, but you cannot say that it isn’t an appropriate title.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This is a very unusual book, be warned.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an odd and fascinating mixture of historical documentation and fantasy, which together paint a private and tragic portrait of one of American history’s best known figures. The story is mostly a father’s intense struggle with grief following the loss of 11 year old Willie Lincoln, third and much loved son of the President.

The historical parts are accounts from staff, friends, witnesses, guests and colleagues as they write about Abraham Lincoln on the day of his son’s death, along with numerous general accounts from history. In letters, journals, memoirs- they recall the Presidential party that took place that evening, his behaviour, his appearance, they speculate with the benefit of hindsight about the suffering boy upstairs succumbing to Typhoid Fever. 
These sections are referenced within the body of the text, so the reader knows where they’re from. It’s a new kind of narrative woven together with scraps of other documents. It feels and reads like prose- it flows beautifully and does not feel for a second like the historical collage that it seems to be. It does mention in the Q&A with Saunders that some of them are fabricated. Personally I could not tell which, but was happy to go along with the author’s artistic licence and vision.  It really is quite remarkable.

The other side of the story is the bardo, a sort of Purgatory (according to Tibetan belief), a forgotten semi-existence between lives- after death but before the next life. This is where the confused Lincoln Jnr. wakes up, a graveyard city populated with nebulous, vague souls from across the ages. Our main narrators here are hans vollman, a newly re-married printer crushed by a beam in his office and roger bevins iii, a suicidal gay socialite, both of whom died at opposite ends of the 1840s. The third is the reverend everly thomas, a man escaping his final judgement. Vollman and bevins are something of a double act, commenting on goings on around the bardo and inviting various residents to have their say- they are both funny and tragic, utterly convinced that they are merely ill and due to return to ‘the previous place’ any day now.

Abraham Lincoln, bereft at the loss of his golden child, visits him in the mausoleum. Unusually, he is visible to the bardo’s populace. Believing it to be some kind of omen or message, some potential way back in to the world, the bardo’s residents clamour to tell their stories to the boy and the grieving, unhearing form of his father. Though they do not know who he is, they sense that he is a powerful man. Some characters stick around for a while, some get the one chance to speak and are gone. Of the ones that stick around for a while, I found that their voices were so recognisable and distinct, that by the time the reader gets to the end of the segment, the notation of the speaker's identity is usually not needed, because you've grown to recognise how they talk, to whom they most regularly speak, and their backstory.

I really enjoyed this and tore through the whole book in two days. Even the most confused reader cannot fail to be moved by the waves of grief emanating from the President as he spends one last night in the crypt, alone with his son’s body. It’s a partial biography of Lincoln, the private man, rather than the Gettysburg guy as well as a commentary of a time in American history, with plenty of throwbacks to the past. Interestingly (and importantly), slavers and slaves share the same bardo. All those important seeming in-life life distinctions of class, gender, colour, religion and age seem to carry no weight in the nothingness, as they are all there together. I felt the book’s lasting impression was about the idea of an eternal chance to learn to get along, something we are so bad at in life.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a gorgeous book, an absolute one-off. It’s stunningly written, insanely evocative, funny, tragic, profound and ridiculous all at once. The delicacy of balancing farcical, comedic characters with such tragedy, such misery and grief is remarkable. It won’t be a book for everyone, the clamour of voices and the unorthodox style will put some off. But those that persevere are in for one of the most immersive, affecting reading experiences of their lives.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Life on the Refrigerator Door, by Alice Kulpers

An epistolary novel written in notes left on the fridge door by 15 year old Claire, and Claire's Doctor Mom. To begin with, the notes reveal a fairly ordinary domestic reality in a household with a teenage girl and a single parent. They are ships that pass in the night- money left on the counter for Claire to get some groceries on her way home from school. I'm babysitting tonight see you tomorrow. Sorry I forgot about your presentation, hope it went well. Let's do something Saturday. We never see each other anymore. I can't do Saturday, when will you be home. It's sad to see people that obviously love and care for each other take each other for granted and fail to make time to do things as often as they could. But life gets in the way.

The notes reveal the fluctuations in the characters' moods- Claire guilt trips her absent Mom, Mom gets mad about it, they make up. They're frustrated at not seeing much of each other, variously blaming themselves and each other for their failure to catch up. They think about themselves, they think about each other. They apologise, they grab a few hours together, a film or breakfast, and it's enough for now. It's not ideal, but the reader really gets a sense of these characters and how they live. The characters are really brilliantly crafted and both Claire and Mom are absolutely alive through their notes, their personalities poured onto those little scraps of paper. Things happen away from the page that are alluded to but obviously don't make it into the notes, which makes everything feel more realistic. Time passes, but the notes are all we have. It's enough. It's surprising how effectively the notes create a picture of these people's lives, like using historical artifacts to piece together life in the past. A small amount of information gives a lot away.

When Claire's mom gets a devastating diagnosis (Doctors make the worst patients) the notes carry on, but the way both characters handle their new reality is different- each seems determined to deal with it in their own way. They don't communicate, they irritate one another with their perceived selfishness or irritability. They try too hard or don't try hard enough. Claire and her Mom are both a bit guilty of trying to do the right thing but making it worse. There's still scraps of that old domesticity; Clean the Rabbit out. Buy milk and bread. James called. But it's interspersed with note-based evidence of two independent women trying to deal with a horrible situation alone.

In a lot of ways it's quite frustrating to read about two people handling something so badly- cycles of resentment, sadness, making up, shutting each other out and letting each other in. Trying to balance Dealing With Things with Getting On With Life. The book really makes it clear that there is no good, no right way of dealing with grief, anger and bad luck and that sometimes you are not in control. It's awful to read their dawning realisation of what the future holds, their hope and their attempts to get to know each other properly. All that wasted time.

It really is a fascinating format and a brilliant study of two characters that the reader never really sees. We know everything about these characters' lives, but have never technically met them or even overhead a conversation. It creates the same feeling as Instagram stalking, or being really into a celebrity or whatever. You know everything about them based on the trail of information that they have left behind them without ever being face to face. It's a fascinating format, done to perfection.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

This was a book club choice and definitely not something I would usually read. I remember there being a Waugh author study module at uni many moons ago, which was one of the first ones I ruled out when choosing my 2nd year modules, so this is the first Waugh novel (novella?) I have ever read- and I have to say it was rather a pleasant experience.

You cannot, as a reader, help but feel sorry for poor Paul Pennyfeather. As if his name is not daft enough, he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, acting in utterly the wrong way to limit any damage caused by any such misunderstandings. Expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour (not really his fault) Paul is denied his sizable inheritance by his guardian. Forced by the pinch of poverty into a teaching position at a sub-rate boarding school in Wales, Paul has absolutely no experience or inclination to teach, and is advised by some of the other "Masters" at the school to just keep the boys quiet and blag his way through the instruction of sports, the organ and other randomly assigned duties. There are an assortment of similarly inept staff at the school, the mysterious, superior butler Philbrick with his many aliases and tall tales, the wooden-legged Grimes who finds himself constantly 'in the soup', the grumpy former man of God, Prendergast who is forever lamenting about his doubts and wears a wig, so finds discipline beyond him. The school is presided over by the pompous and inept Dr Fagan and his two plain daughters.

At the school's disastrous sports day that sees shootings, awful bands and the vilest sounding sandwiches, hapless Paul falls for one of his students' mother, the glamourous widow Margot Beste-Chetwynde which sees him spirited away from the Welsh boarding school to her ugly but immensely expensive house, installed as a private tutor and eventually promoting himself to fiancee. As you might by now expect, the arrangement is far from straightforward. Swept up in the glamour of society, Paul is arrested for his involvement in the human trafficking slash prostitution ring that he knows nothing about- it appears that his betrothed's fortune has its roots in high class South American brothels. Oh dear. How different can prison be to public school, really? There will be some familiar faces, more Unfortunate Events and an unlikely rescue of poor Paul Pennyfeather. You can't help but like him, mildly lurching from one disaster to another.

Published in 1928 (at the ripe old age of 25) to an apparently obliging audience, this novel is variously considered a 'comedy of manners', satire, picaresque and a farce. The story line is undeniably absurd, the characters ridiculous and flawed. Paul is not the only one that staggers from disaster to disaster, apparently oblivious to his fate and any type of consequence, or with any mind for his plight. It's a playful, well timed charade- Waugh lazily flicks obstacles into the paths of his creations and almost a century later it's still funny to watch them stagger around cluelessly, getting themselves deeper and deeper 'in the soup', hopelessly implicated and unfortunate to the last. It seems that not much has changed in the intervening years- money is no ticket out of trouble, the ruling classes are hopelessly divorced from reality and good intentions regarding getting on the straight and narrow are a guaranteed recipe for trouble.

Decline and Fall reminded me of Lucky Jim, in that same Series of Unfortunate Events kind of way...of lumbering from one disaster to another and somehow ending up in academia. There is obviously not much regard for the toil and dedication of scholars and academics, as according to most literature about them, they seem to have washed up in their wood paneled studies entirely by accident.