UPDATE – Drowning in PhD Reading and a Book Haul

It’s been a long January of reading pretty much everything Primo Levi wrote and other Holocaust literature and memoirs – hence my lack of reviews, I don’t particularly want to review such harrowing and personal stuff.

But while I’m here to plug, I wrote a review of a book by a second generation Holocaust survivor which has now been published by the Institute of Historical Research http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/2215

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post is I had an amazing little book haul courtesy of a £50 Waterstones voucher for filling in a training survey for the lovely people that fund my PhD. So I thought I’d post about the books I’ve bought, why I bought them and how I will 100% be reviewing all of them once I’ve read them.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
This looks to be an interesting time travelling/identity crisis read with hints of loneliness. I also love the fact that the main character uses his long life and experiences to teach History at a school – yes I’m biased and swayed by the whole history link.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl
This has been on my to-read list for a long time, but it wasn’t a Holocaust read that could be found in the University Library. My thesis dabbles in the ideas of psychology and how they link to the post-war experience of Holocaust survivors, and the idea that Frankl attempted to create a psychotherapeutic method based on his Auschwitz experience just feels like a fascinating thing to engage with.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
I had a friend who really adored this book, and despite the perils of friendship with this person, we had similar taste in books. I mean come on, dystopia, book hating, burning, banning intrigue? Count me in.

This Is Going To Hurt by Adam Kay
I’ve always been really interested in the practice of medicine and the history of it, but also dismayed to see how much pressure staff in our NHS are under. These secret diaries of a junior doctor feels like something everyone should read – the people who treat us when we go to hospital are only human, humans under incredible amounts of pressure.

Wayward Girls and Wicked Women by Angela Carter
I know people who are so obsessed and in love with Angela Carter’s works, and I have read a grand total of zero. Time to change this, also the title sounds feminist and epic.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
See above remarks how I am so ridiculously late to the Angela Carter party.

Desire by Haruki Murakami
I’ve heard so many good things about Murakami just in general, and this little mini book seemed really interesting in its premise and to be honest I don’t really read enough short stories. I should get to the point where I do read more short stories and poetry, for tiny little pick me ups for the time constraints of modern life.


REVIEW – Working Class Boy & Working Class Man by Jimmy Barnes

Disclaimer – I am a massive hardcore Jimmy Barnes fan and I’m very well aware that for a 23 year old British female, that its weird to be so into an 80s Aussie rockstar. But what can I say? My mum has great music taste influenced by a year living in Australia that she passed on to me.

It was a massive dream of mine to see him live, but I never imagined he would tour here. But he did, and the 13th December was a life changer. He is incredible live even so many years after his rise to stardom. I then realised my fellow hardcore fan of a mother bought his two memoirs – Working Class Boy and Working Class Man.

The first book, Working Class Boy deals with Jimmy’s childhood in Glasgow and his initial move to Australia with his very dysfunctional family. He’s so upfront and honest about it, without laying blame at anyone’s door that its fairly refreshing. And he doesn’t hesitate in showing himself warts and all and giving you all the details as he remembers (and by his own admission there are a lot of hazy bits). He shows the readers how music was his shelter from his problems but also made his issues worse.

The theme continues with Working Class Man when his band, Cold Chisel is formed and he has everything he could wish for – a wife, children, a surrogate family in his band and money in the bank, but its hard to escape those origins and a deep-set unhappiness. The warts and all approach really comes to the fore in this book, and Jimmy freely admits in places that he acted all kinds of wrong and messed up. I admire that about him really, and the way its presented shows the struggle between an addiction and wanting to do the best for his family while making the most of his career and his love of music.

Even if you’re not a fan of the man himself, I can’t recommend this book enough because it’s more than a rockstar memoir. It’s a tale of fighting through a lot of demons to happiness and some semblance of normality.

New Year, Same Old Bookish Me – 2017 Recollections

So after finishing Jimmy Barnes’ memoirs ‘Working Class Boy’ and ‘Working Class Man’ (which I’ll be reviewing in my next post), my 2017 reading adventures came to an end. And finishing those two meant that this year, I read 108 books. It’s a massive shock and kind of ridiculous, but at the same time I sort of get why the number was so large this year. Books were my respite from my problems, a shelter from all the crap I was carrying and refusing to deal with. Things are much better now, and 2018 promises to be a jam-packed, fun-filled year. Life feels less shaky and more secure now, so yay to stability!

So out of the 108 books I read this year, I thought I would try to narrow it down to my top 10 (no mean feat believe me). In no particular order, here are my top picks:
– Working Class Boy by Jimmy Barnes
– Working Class Man by Jimmy Barnes
– The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
– The Boys by Martin Gilbert
– The One by John Marrs
– Insidious Intent by Val McDermid
– The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
– The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
– So Much Owed by Jean Grainger
– Fevre Dream by George R R Martin

There’s a long list of books that I want to delve into in 2018, on top of the exciting plans I’ve got in the pipeline. I can’t wait to see what the year has in store for me.


REVIEW – The Distant Echo by Val McDermid

Apologies, this is another McDermid review – we can’t help our obsessions.

The Distant Echo follows the cold case of barmaid Rosie Duff’s brutal murder, taking us back to when the crime was committed and how suspicion fell on to four students – nicknamed Gilly, Weird, Mondo and Ziggy. Fast forward twenty five years, and someone seems to be holding a grudge against the four. And of course with this being a McDermid novel, there is a fair amount of murder, suspicion and the sense of a loveable rogue caught up in a system.

I loved the consideration of how the boys grew up and the paths they took separately but how they were brought together again by tragedy and death. And it was great to see that there were still tensions between the men that considered themselves blood brothers at university. After all, people age and people change – and no friendship is entirely harmonious anyway, yay to realism.

There were so many little plot twists and side stories that really added to the overall build up of the story and set the pace up really well. Lynn and Alex’s baby Davina, Mondo’s wife’s affair and the introduction of Graham Macfayden as a long lost son really added dimensions to the story and made it very three dimensional and rounded.

As for the ending, pft its second to none. For me, McDermid is forever the Queen of the crime novel. The way she builds up the story, puts suspicion on different people and then BAM its someone you never considered but it makes so much sense. And The Distant Echo is no exception.


REVIEW – Trick of the Dark by Val McDermid

Trick of the Dark is one of Val McDermid’s stand-alone novels. For me they provide a refreshing break from getting over-invested in the lives, trials and tribulations of her series *cough* Wire In The Blood.

This book follows disgraced psychiatrist and profiler Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Kent as her old tutor at Oxford Dr Corinna Newsam reaches out to her asking for help. Her daughter Magda’s husband was murdered on their wedding day and now Magda’s shacked up with an old student/former babysitter of Corinna’s. I envision reaching out going something like this (although the book makes it much more cryptic of course’: ‘Dear former student who is in fact a lesbian, despite my values dictating I should be homophobic I’m fairly ok with who you are. Let’s catch up, PS I think my daughter’s girlfriend is a serial killer….’

So we spend the entire book thinking it’s way too easy for Jay Macallan Stewart, dotcom millionaire and now new squeeze of Magda Newsam to successfully kill people who get in her way. We’re not helped by the process of Jay writing her memoirs, which trick your mind and leave gaps that make you think Jay is a fairly unreliable narrative – of course in the McDermid world this jumps to ‘could be a serial killer’ – a hangover of crime genre means you’re immediately weary of the person presented as likely to be the killer throughout – because it NEVER normally is.

What I wasn’t expecting for the ending was for Jay to be not entirely innocent – that did take me by surprise a bit and it was nice to see some sort of comeuppance for her actions, even if a large portion of it was just in her personal life.

What I love about McDermid is a lot of the time she writes what she knows – not murders and criminal psychology obviously but the way she deals with issues of gender, sexuality and how this relates to an institution such as Oxford feels like it comes from a place of experience, and that makes the characters so much deeper and easier to relate to and fall in love with. Speaking of falling in love, I don’t think I’ll ever fall out of love with McDermid. I am not even joking when I say I probably own everything she has ever written and eagerly anticipate her next instalment of everything to satisfy my inner crime novel junkie.


REVIEW – The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

First of all, can we appreciate what a cool title ‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ is? Not only an incredible title, its so evocative when you’ve read the story and begin to understand the two polar opposites to be found in this book.

William Rackham is the younger son of a successful business owner, poised to take the helm of the company over his pious elder brother. As the book goes on, we are introduced to William’s wife Agnes, completely in denial about the birds and the bees, a little bit unhinged and unstable and generally rather helpless. William, as seems to be the Victorian man’s way, seeks passion elsewhere and hears of the mysterious ‘Sugar’, a 19 year old prostitute at ‘Mrs Castaway’s’ who ‘will do anything’ for a man. They’re coy about what this is, for the purposes of the repressed Victorian age this novel falls in.

The novel develops in complexity over its 800 odd pages, but I loved every moment of it. I love this contrast between the seedier side of this Victorian London underground and the pure, childish innocence that comes from Agnes – remember what I was saying about the Crimson Petal and the White as a title? This for me is its main contrast between the two female leads.

The characters are all so complex and deep and the narrative weaves a wonderful web in between William’s ‘charming’ friends, his brother Henry’s struggles with ‘carnal’ thoughts in his pious, guilty mind and Sugar’s desire to find something better for herself and how close she gets to the people around her.

I’m not sure whether by the end you were supposed to be feeling sorry for Sugar or hating her, I guess a bit of both? She had done a lot wrong in life, particularly as the book began to close, but she did feel genuinely guilty about a lot of her actions, and those actions themselves seemed to stem from love more than malice.

Overall a great venture into gender, religion and madness in Victorian London. A delicate and painstaking climb before an epic crescendo and an admittedly abrupt ending.


REVIEW – So Much Owed by Jean Grainger

So Much Owed has been presented as an Irish WW2 story, but it has a slightly bigger scope than that, beginning at the end of WW1, when Dr Richard Buckley returns home from war with his best friend’s widow Solange in tow. Shortly after his arrival, twins Juliet and James are born to Richard and his cold and unfeeling wife Edith. Showing minimal interest in her children and never forgiving her husband for signing up to fight for the British, her perceived enemy, she ups and leaves, leaving Richard and Solange to manage.

And by all means, the twins do well, the bulk of the story follows the twins as adults and the build up to the Second World War and how they both play their parts but also make some questionable personal decisions along the way. And there’s this constant pressure of what is expected of them, that James will be a doctor and Juliet a wife, but the previously mischievous twins throw out the rule book and seem to do their own thing, which I adore about the two of them as characters.

James and Juliet’s closeness is echoed throughout the book, where you see both sides of them falling out and feeling conflicted, worried that they’re losing that closeness. They spent a lot of time away from each other but they’re still constantly wondering how the other is doing and worrying, wishing the other was there to help them navigate their decisions.

Some of the claims in the book, such as the IRA compliance with German spies and a conspiracy taking place in the republic, I can’t say I know much about, but I’m sure on some level events like this were taking place in that period – there’s too much tension between the IRA, Unionists and Britain to assume that this neutrality was respected on all sides. Although, I will admit that the big revelation towards the end about a certain conspirator, I had seen coming much earlier on – and that for me is where the book fell a little flat. In many instances it was so easy to see what was coming next, so the big revelations had far less impact because I found myself as a reader rolling her eyes and saying ‘No Shit Sherlock’.

Slight side note here – I couldn’t help but see comparisons with Juliet’s story and Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks, which made me love this book a little bit more than I did already. The moral grey areas of Juliet’s side of the story, and in fact the grey areas all over this book made it quite an interesting read.

I absolutely loved the ending in every possible way. It had a smudge of tragedy, nothing to make you too inconsolable, but a whole lot of happy ending as well for the people of Dunderrig who I grew to love whilst reading this.


REVIEW – The Art of Fear by Pamela Crane

The Art of Fear introduces us to two main characters – Ari, who has been held responsible for the hit and run of her little sister Carli for the majority of her life, and Tina, who changed her name from Sophia after escaping a life of child sex trafficking her father sold her into. Their paths cross at a suicide support group that Ari sets up, for those who have attempted suicide in the past, feel suicidal or have experienced the suicide of a loved one. Tina attends this group after the apparent suicide of her father Josef, but obviously it becomes much more complex than that otherwise we wouldn’t have a novel to read just a short story of a few pages.

The two women get really close really quickly, which I guess needs to happen from the perspective of the storyline because everything develops at a really intense and fast-paced rate. There’s Josef’s killer to track down, there’s a whole lot of guilt to unpack and the main characters have a habit of getting hurt by the big mysterious baddie that every thriller has.

Tina is a much more complicated character than Ari simply because of what she’s been through, her trust issues are completely understandable and even her ability to hold things back and lie – she’s been burned that many times that I couldn’t really be mad at her for that, although Ari certainly was at times. The example would be the discussions and worry about baby Giana and where to find her, it’s a late entry into the story because of Tina holding back but as the story evolves you empathise, sympathise and begin to understand everything she’s not letting on.

We’re also introduced to big bad child sex trafficker George Battan, responsible for the trauma of Tina’s childhood and her loss of innocence. There’s a whole evolving storyline about the debts of Josef and his wife Mercedes and what apparently ‘necessitated’ Tina’s sale into the sex trade. What struck me as quite interesting was how this mingled with Ari’s story and the death of young Carli all those years ago. It was something they were hinting at in the beginnings of the story but held back the true scope of how bad it was until the bitter end, no doubt gripping you into buying the sequel. But I think I might, so it definitely served its purpose.


REVIEW – The Revelation Room by Mark Tilbury

The Revelation Room follows a strange sect/cult of unstable Christianity and mysticism called ‘The Sons and Daughters of Salvation’. The story opens in the ‘Revelation Room’, a room within a top secret farm compound where the group is based. The first victim? Geoff Whittle, a private investigator caught trying to prove the whereabouts of missing Emily, whose parents are desperate to rescue her from this particular group. So when Geoff goes missing and makes a concerning phone call, it falls to his son Ben, twenty-something and seemingly stuck in a rut and his friend Maddie to infiltrate the cult and find his Dad. As usual with this type of story, they got a lot more than they bargained for.

The aims of the Sons and Daughters of Salvation is somewhat unclear, but deliberately so. The party line seems to be this idea of ‘the Rapture’ – building a spaceship so the chosen few can essentially fly to heaven (or something along those vague lines). I actually found this concept interesting because it bridged for me the stereotype of a religious sect and a space-obsessed cult. Maybe this isn’t such a novel thing in our world, but it certainly seemed a bit of a hybrid to me.

The leader of this group is Father Ebb, a strange and sadistic fellow who is very obviously mentally ill and possibly even a psychopath (as the story develops you gain crucial insight into his backstory which makes you shudder and feel slightly confused all at once). The man who sets down the rules of the farm; no painkillers, no alcohol, no meat, no sex – yet indulges in all of the above, bending the rules and using his position within the group to argue that Jesus told him it was necessary. For example – the girls have to be ‘planted’ with his seed for their initiation – completely necessary to do the work of God right? Not for some weirdo to get his rocks off on young impressionable women.

The ending was certainly a fairly happy one, but not so happy in the sense that everything turned out ok. More like the central characters have escaped, the bad guy is dead but now comes the aftermath – the adjusting, the recovery from injuries both physical and psychological.

Overall this was a really nice easy read, with plenty of intrigue and a nice steady build up to the main crescendo.


REVIEW – When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul is just coming to the end of his neurosurgical residency and its taking a bit of a toll on his marriage. All of his plans had been put off until he could officially call himself an attending neurosurgeon. Until he starts getting ill, and starts avoiding what could be wrong with him.

Until he’s diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The type they call stage 4 because there is no stage 5. So he starts to write down his story, part autobiography part journal.

We’re taken through the ups and downs of his battle, where it looks like he’s getting better and goes back to work, pushing his body to grueling limits to get to that end point he always dreamed of – that golden neurosurgical status. It seems within his reach, he’s getting better, he can dare to imagine a future. And you can really root for him and almost fight alongside him, as he has this spirit where he focuses on his goals, obsessing with time, to the annoyance of his oncologist where he consistently pesters her for mortality curves. He begins to wonder on the bad days, whether neurosurgery is his future. Can he face a toxic treatment that might damage his ability to perform surgery?

We’re treated to an insight into teenaged Paul, what made him pursue neurosurgery and neuroscience away from literature and philosophy. But the general tone of the book has input from these fields, particularly as Paul seeks comfort in them during his journey and the way that he thinks about death (or obsesses over it some would say).

Spoiler alert, Paul doesn’t make it, and the chapter from his wife that documented how short the book was because of how ill Paul got and how fast he deteriorated, resulting in his death holding his child, I shed a tear (or one hundred). An emotional and touching book, published posthumously and a great tribute to Paul’s memory.