Tuesday 6 January 2015

Some short reviews of November & December reading

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh

Do No Harm by Henry Marsh


Henry Marsh is one of Britain’s top neurosurgeons and in this memoir he reflects upon his career, on the highs and lows. Especially the lows. This is a fascinating insight into what can go wrong with the brain, that require surgery. The heart breaking decisions surgeons need to make. The state of British and Ukrainian medicine (Marsh travels a lot to Ukraine) and what top surgeons think of the NHS (it’d be great if governments stopped interfering on ideological grounds). Marsh’s prose is matter of fact and unflinchingly honest, regrets are laid bare and he admits to mistakes that “ruin” people or even kill them. This has been put forward for a Costa prize and I’m not surprised. A gripping read throughout.

Overall - If you’re the sort of person who is interested in the workings of biology, medicine or a fan of medical drama this is the book for you.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes


Combining crime and urban fantasy Beukes writes a novel I enjoyed but it was just a little off the mark to gain a Brilliant rating. A mutilated body of the top half of a boy glued to the bottom half of a deer starts a hunt for a new serial killer on the block in Detroit. Beukes does a great job of creating the cop investigating, Gabi Versado, and her daughter, who becomes integral, and the killer. Detroit’s art scene is vividly brought to life and the plot bubbled away nicely. Beukes was spot on with social media in the novel, which was very refreshing, so many modern novels try to ignore mobile phones, the internet and social media, but Beukes interweaves it beautifully. So what was off the mark? The supernatural element, it just felt superfluous, a garnish rather than an integral ingredient. Still that is a relatively minor niggle and I do recommend this book. I am also slightly disappointed that Beukes has started writing books set exclusively in America, I liked that her first two were set in her native South Africa.

Overall – Crime? Horror? urban fantasy? Doesn’t matter what genre you put it in, give it a go

Travels in a thin country by Sara Wheeler

Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through…

Sara, as a young woman, travels to Chile and determines to travel from the very top to the very bottom (in Antartica) and write about her experiences. Whilst this does explore the country it does so in very brief snapshots in each place and there is no overall narrative to bind it together. I read it on holiday, naturally, and can remember very little of it now, a matter of a few weeks later.

Overall -  Not very evocative.

Distant Star by Roberto Bolano

Distant Star by Roberto Bolano


Novella about poets during the Pinochet era. Bolano obviously took sly digs at actual poets and the overall tone is interesting but in a novella it’s a very odd choice to abandon the plot half way through for an extensive aside. I didn’t really enjoy this one, it failed to grip me and the last third fails at being hard boiled. This is my second Bolano and the second I’ve not really “got”. It came recommended and now I’m wondering if Bolano is for me – perhaps I’m just not trying him at his best?

Overall - This struck me as a pretentious book.

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbe

Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé


The narrator(s), quite unreliable, is participating in a writing experiment/game with six other particpants, all named after days of the week. Each writes part of the story that the others must complete, if one fails they disappear, an obvious allusion to the disappearances during the Pinochet era. Our narrator is obsessed with a family whose the son and daughter disappear in Navidad near the twin village of Matanza. This is a short but chewy novel/novella which twists and turns through a complex structure and plot. I was left a little mystified at the end, obviously missing some of its allusions and Chileanisms. It is a very interesting, but confusing, read.

Overall – Not an easy book, but worthwhile reading

Ways of going home by Alejandro Zambra

Ways of Going Home: A Novel by Alejandro…


Our narrator reflects on his childhood growing up in 1980’s Chile as his parents and their friends try to cope with Pinochet’s regime. On the night of the Santiago earthquake, a mysterious girl, called Claudia, appears and his life is changed forever. This is another Chilean novella about the Pinochet era that I read whilst travelling in Chile and the one that I remember best. It’s a story about finding our way home (as per the title) both physically and emotionally and obviously an allusion of how the country can return ‘home’ after the dictatorship.

Overall – Small book, big themes, interesting reading, recommended.

Pablo Neruda by Dominic Moran

Pablo Neruda (Reaktion Books - Critical…


A biography of that quintessential Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Nobel prize winner, diplomat, philanderer. Moran’s biography concentrates on what the poetry says about the man going back and forth between the works and what was happening in the world, in Chile and in Neruda’s life. A controversial figure, unable to criticise Stalinist Russia because of his deeply held belief in Communism. Fleeing from Franco’s Spain, but then spending great effort to get others out once he was safe. Horrible to his wives, the third of whom was utterly devoted to him. Neruda’s character is complex and fascinating. Moran also gives us an oversight of some of the more famous poems and poetry collections. It was very interesting to tour Neruda’s hoses in Santiago and Valparaiso after reading this book.

Overall – A riveting, if not very flattering, portrait of a complex character, one you cannot help but dislike.

On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti

On Liberty by Shami Chakrabarti


Shami Chakrabati gave up a promising career working as a lawyer for the home office to join Liberty, a cash-strapped charity fighting on behalf of the oppressed for human rights. Here she tells her story and why liberty (the concept) and Liberty (the organisation) are important. Human Rights in this country (the UK) have come under attack lately as people leap on board the UKIP bandwagon with its mistaken belief that some people do not deserve any rights, and that rights have been assigned and enforced incorrectly by faceless bureaucrats in Europe. What they don’t admit to is that Human Rights were enshrined in law after the holocaust, written mostly by British lawyers. Chakrabarti lays out the facts about the act, quotes it extensively, debunks the counter-factual claims of the Right (including our delusional Conservative party, as well as the nutters in UKIP) and explains with patience, passion and intelligence why human rights are important.

Overall – People either side of the human rights debate should read this book.

Why are we the good guys? by David Cromwell

Why Are We The Good Guys?: Reclaiming Your… 

David Cromwell of Media Lens - http://www.medialens.org/ challenges the assumption that the West is a force for good. To quote the back - <i> One of the unspoken assumptions of the Western world is that we are great defenders of human rights,  a free press and the benefits of market economics. … the prevailing view is that the West is essentially a force for good in the wider world. Why Are We The Good Guys? is a provocative challenge of this false ideology.</i>

Interweaved with Cromwell’s incisive analysis of the modern media is a memoir of how he came to be an iconoclast, growing up in one of the very few communist families in his home town. I like iconoclasts, I like to have my assumptions and cosy opinions challenged, I think this is healthy, if you have an opinion, understanding why you have that opinion and being able to defend it is a useful skill. Cromwell makes many good points but I feel goes too far the other way, we are neither universally good nor universally bad. Perhaps it is his debating technique – to take a diametrically opposite view – but some of what he said eroded his message.

Overall – Thought-provoking polemic  

Bad book club by Robin Ince

Robin Ince's Bad Book Club: One…


Robin Ince is a UK comedian that travels the country doing gigs, on his travels he visits second hand bookshops looking for reading material. Once bitten by the “this book is so bad it’s good” bug he goes on search for the hidden gems of bad celebrity biographies, awful animal horror stories (like [The crabs]) and romances with heaving bosoms, bizarre self-help books and many more. Ince is best when he rants about books written by newspaper columnists or celebrity culture and the chapter on sex has some very bizarre material. However it’s not a book to read all in one go, as the humour wears a little thin by the end. I also felt it was perhaps a little too long, but maybe it was just that the novelty wore off a few chapters before the end. Saying that though Ince is obviously passionate about writing and I really enjoyed most of the book.

Overall – A celebration of bad writing and bad book ideas.

The best American non-required reading edited by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snickett)

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014…


Every year high school students through the auspices of 826 Valencia (and the other 826 locations USA wide) read and choose fiction and non-fiction to be included in an anthology. This was set up by [[Dave Eggers]] and this year, for the first time, edited by Daniel Handler. This should be a very mixed bag right? There are non-fiction pieces, fiction, even extracts from Graphic Novels. But I found it all to be very similar, and, dare I say, a bit bland. So much so that I couldn’t reach the end (I have about three stories left to write and two poems). I started by trying to read in one, went to reading in between other books and it’s now on the TGRO (To Get Rid Of pile).

Overall – What should be eclectic and interesting is somehow similar and bland

How not to write a novel by Sandra Newman

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic…


Turning the usual writing advice on its head, and providing plenty of examples of deliciously bad writing, the authors of this little help novel tell you how to write an unpublishable novel. How to write bad characters, bad plot, bad dialogue, bad settings, bad pacing, the works. This is entertaining and educational and I read it in a few hours.

Overall – Lots of fun writing guide

Sunbathing Naked by Guy Kennaway

Sunbathing Naked: And Other Miracle Cures -…


Guy Kennaway has psoriasis, and this is his skin’s memoir. Kennaway rushes through his biography up until he gets the dreaded red patches, then gives us a bit of context with a little bit of history of psoriasis, and the fact that “lepers” in the Bible should actually be Psoraitics, not sufferers of Hansard’s Disease as commonly assumed & provides the etymological evidence for this. There is a call back to this later as he discusses the Jesus cures a Leper parts of the Bible. He blends in the biographies of other sufferers (which he admits are conglomerates of people he’s met, rather than actual people) and an extended article about the wonders of sunbathing naked in the Dead Sea skin resort in Israel during one of its occasional wars with Palestine. Then, when he leaves Israel in remission, the book takes a bizarre turn as Kennaway becomes a sex addict, being free from the crippling self-hate he has when covered in psoriatic lesions. This bit of the book was both sensational and also a little coy – he discusses in detail his treatment in rehab, but says nothing about how this affected his family, who I assume he is still with as he thanks them in the acknowledgements. Apart from this odd bit though this is a good book to get an idea of what psoriasis (and other skin disease) sufferers go through on a daily basis, not only physically but mentally too.

Overall – Interesting memoir about a struggle with a disease that affects self-esteem

The brothers Cabal by Jonathan L Howard

The Brothers Cabal (Johannes Cabal Novels)…


Hmmm how to review this without spoilers of the previous novels? By not mentioning the plot (which is great btw and the bit where the wotsit and the thingy were introduced was amazing) but just by saying – it’s like the previous books, but better. Has some characters you’ll know, and some you won’t. Has acts of derring do and wicked plots and perfidious practices. And there are brothers, they are named Cabal and you may or may not have met them both in earlier books. There are monsters from beyond the sane angles of reality of course and dark gloomy castles, and it may not be giving too much away to state that there is a train, but not that train, and there may also be sarcasm and necromancy.

Overall - This really is a great series and if you haven’t spent time with Johannes Cabal then you should remedy that immediately.

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