Literary Linking #8


A bumper crop of links because I’ve been storing them up. An early Christmas present perhaps?



Ian Rankin – The Travelling Companion

If you’re in the mood for a bite-size read – and you like a little creepy to go with your cosy at Christmas – it’s worth trying one of the short stories in Book Grail’s Death Sentences. There are 25 stories, each authored by some of the best crime writers out there today, and I’ve just finished Ian Rankin’s The Travelling Companion.


Coming in at just 88 (pint-size) pages, this is definitely a one-sitting read. Strait-laced and studious Ronald Hastie is working over the summer at the famed Shakespeare and Co bookshop in Paris, in exchange for bed and board. Back in his native Scotland, he will shortly be starting a PhD on literary hero Robert Louis Stevenson. But Hastie’s ordered life takes an obsessive turn when he meets a collector who claims to have not one, but two missing Stevenson manuscripts…

This is a pacy, absorbing little tale but I enjoyed it just as much for the questions it raised and it’s also fascinating for those with an interest in where author’s ideas come from.  I went straight from final line to google, desperate to know how much of the ‘missing manuscript’ story and the discussion about the origins of Stevenson’s Hyde were based in fact. After all, behind every good story there’s…another story.

Further reading: 

Literary linking #7


You know that image of the spinning plates? Well, that. Almost constantly. It’s not wholly negative, I should add, because out of the busyness is a great deal of satisfaction at getting back to (part-time) editing work while caring for a one-year-old and feeling a little of my old, functional, non-nursery-rhyme-singing self emerge from the baby fog.

However, I have been wondering lately whether there might just be a couple of broken plates that I haven’t looked too closely at yet.

Ah well. I’m managing to find time to read the odd book! And my little girl turned one on Wednesday, which is bonkers, but was a wonderful opportunity to buy a lot of books for her library. I feel a post on my picks for classic children’s books might be brewing…

Some literary links ahead of the weekend.

Falling Into The Fire and Five Days At Memorial

I mentioned I’ve been reading some harrowing medical books recently… And in the way of these things, there are some commonalities between the first two, so I thought I’d cover them together. There are a few more books focusing on mental health in particular still in my ‘to be read’ pile but I think there’s probably only so much harrowing that one post can hold.


First up, I finished Sheri Fink’s Pulitzer winning Five Days At Memorial, which covers the devastating period immediately before, during and after Hurricane Katrina for the people sheltering in the New Orleans Memorial Medical Center. The ‘after’ covers both the aftermath, as hospital workers and volunteers worked to evacuate the patients who remained as floodwaters rose, and the arrests and litigation that marked the years that followed. In particular, the book follows the case of Dr Anna Pou, charged with murder for allegedly helping to euthanize some of the sickest patients in the hospital.

There’s no point pulling any punches. This is a distressing read. It’s impossible not to put yourself in pretty much everyone’s shoes; doctors, patients, volunteers, pets brought in during the storm. Terrible medical and ethical decisions were forced on individuals as a result of a pretty catastrophic failure of both business and government to plan for and respond to an emergency on this scale. Fink’s approach is journalism at its best: extremely balanced, detailed without overwhelming and structured in such a way that is both pacy and nuanced without overtly leading the reader to any particular conclusion. I feel like I know what Fink – a trained physician herself – felt about the actions of key decision makers and I’d certainly made my own mind up by the end of the book.

But ultimately this isn’t a book about blame or recriminations. It’s about forcing people to think the unthinkable so they’ll be prepared when the stakes are at their highest. It’s about asking the right questions in the metaphorical calm before the storm and putting people ahead of budgets. It’s about the questions that don’t have answers and how we want to approach them as a society. It’s a true ‘what would you do?’ cautionary tale and it reminded me that we’re not as far from the unimaginable as we might think.

18686094Straight off the back of Fink’s book, I read Christine Montross’ elegaic Falling Into The Fire: A Psychiatrist’s Encounters with the Mind in Crisis. On the surface, the only similarity between them was the hospital setting but I almost immediately stumbled on some interesting connections. Montross writes in the opening chapter about the presence of uncertainty in both her medical and psychiatric training,  as well as how she’s come to uneasy terms with it in her practice:

‘But as a doctor, I have emerged from my training with a shaken faith. If I hold my trust in medicine up to the light, I see that it is full of cracks and seams. In some places it is luminous. In others it is opaque. And yet I practice. At times this doubt is disillusioning. More often, however, I’ve come to view the questions that arise as a vital component of the work of medicine.’

It’s too easy to see doctors as infallible and medicine as full of definitive truths. We are vulnerable in our dealings with our doctors so we want a degree of certainty that is unattainable. Sick/well, life/death, right/wrong – there are too many polarisations, when the truth is that almost every part of medical practice is a sliding scale. I found Montross’ position thought-provoking and it shed light on some of the decisions taken in the aftermath of Katrina where decisions were perhaps not questioned or reevaluated as regularly as they should have been.

Montross also discusses ethical dilemmas that arise where, as in the case of the Memorial doctors, there is no consensus or ‘correct’ approach and where opinions may be divergent and charged. For example, can a doctor who has sworn to ‘first do no harm’ amputate the perfectly healthy limb of a patient suffering with body integrity identity disorder (BIID) – a condition whereby people believe a part of their body does not belong to them and needs to be removed – in order to bring them relief from their often profound psychic suffering?

Montross’ book is also at times pretty upsetting and she openly accepts the difficulty of dwelling with her patients on the brink of the ‘chasm’. But what makes it ultimately such a redemptive and heartfelt read is how beautifully she brings it back to a shared idea of what it means to be human, what it means to suffer and how we all live with the daily knowledge that we are all always potentially a second or two away from life-altering disaster. Drawing on simple anecdotes of her life with her partner Deborah and their two children, Montross avoids this ever being a book about the strange ‘other’ that the mentally ill are often portrayed as and encourages the reader to empathise in a really meaningful way. I loved her style of writing and would certainly seek out her other book.

While neither of these books could ever be viewed as an easy read, they are both rewarding and enriching, and I’d heartily recommend them both.

Susan Hill – A Kind Man

8675328I recently finished this poignant little novella and thought it was worth a note in the interwebs. I do love Hill’s writing; the elegance and clarity of her style makes everything flow so beautifully. And it really came to the fore in this book, which reads almost like a fable. The story of Tommy Carr – the kind man of the title – and his wife Eve is about love and grief and loss, all the big things in life yet again. But Hill takes the reader down an unexpected path part way through the book when Tommy becomes ill. What happens to him next is surprising, thought-provoking and heartfelt. For a small book, it has some very large things to say about human nature.

It’s dawned on me recently that I’ve started reading in chunks, by which I mean fixing on a reading experience that I’ve enjoyed and seeking it out a few more times before moving on. I’m doing it with Hill’s writing at the moment (having just picked up a copy of her book Family from a Nat Trust bookshop) and I’m also doing it with harrowing books written by doctors about medical dilemmas and the impact of ethical decisions. More on that anon, but be warned, it’s not cheery…

A little light reading – short reviews of recent reads (part 2)

As promised, books 6-10 of my recent reads – an eclectic little group all read in early October.


  1. Sally Beauman – The Visitors: It’s 1922 and 11-year-old Lucy is  in Egypt recovering from the typhoid that killed her mother. When she meets Frances Winlock, daughter of the respected American archaeologist, she finds herself caught up in Howard Carter’s epic decade-long search for Tutankhamun in the Valley of Kings. Watching Carter’s struggle and the political machinations surrounding the dig through the eyes of a child put an interesting slant on a fascinating historical period and the parts of the book set in the present day, as Lucy looks back over a life more than a little affected by the events of that Egyptian trip, are genuinely moving. A well-paced, page-turner of a book.
  2. Natasha Solomons – The Song Collector: I didn’t know anything about this book when I picked it up in the library but I really loved it. If you’re a regular reader, you may have picked up on my love for books about music and musical folk (do pick up Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music or Michel Faber’s The Courage Consort if you haven’t already). Harry Fox-Talbot is the musician at the centre of the story; composer, owner of dilapidated country estate Hartgrove Hall and collector of folk & traditional songs. He’s also a man who has recently lost his wife – celebrated singer, Edie Rose – and discovered that his grandson is a piano prodigy. Music is most definitely at the heart of this book but it’s also a really wonderful exploration of love, loss and life.
  3. TaraShea Nesbit – The Wives of Los Alamos: Focusing on the lives of the women who relocated to New Mexico alongside their husbands when they were called to work in the secret nuclear laboratory that gave birth to the atomic bomb, this is an unusual read, not least because of Nesbit’s (controversial – if you pay attention to Goodreads reviews) decision to use the first person plural throughout. But I have to say, I loved it. Yes it takes a little adjustment and it is odd not to have one or two characters to anchor yourself to as you read but I can’t think of a better way of exploring such a collective experience. Some events are so life-altering and unique that they connect people, often in spite of their differences. Plus the narrative perspective adds interesting layers, such as helping to shed light on the way the women were perceived by the military running the base. Although not a conventional, plot-driven ‘story’, I think Nesbit did a wonderful job of opening the door to an experience that very few could possibly imagine.
  4. Susan Hill – Dolly: A Ghost Story: Hill is the consummate master of the literary goosebump and this novella is no exception. Dolls are scary. Dolls that are the focus of supernatural visitations are even more so. Add in the Cambridgeshire fens (home of many a protagonist gone mad), Hill’s nuanced style with an eye for detail that’s almost filmic and you have a genuine spinetingler. I know my limits. I read this during the day and then watched ‘Hey Duggee’ with my daughter to clear out the creeps.
  5. Margaret Forster – How to Measure a Cow: A fun game to play with this particular book is guessing why and how it got its rather unusual title. You won’t guess it before you get there but then you get that ‘ah-HA!’ moment like when you hear the title of a song buried in the lyrics. That aside, this is an unsettling tale focusing on Tara Fraser who is building a new life in Cumbria to escape an event in her past. Tara is a knotty, complex, untrustworthy and often unlikable character, which always makes for an interesting read.

A little light reading – short reviews of recent reads (part 1)

It’s been a little while again but a lot of reading has been going on around the edges of the madness involved in the move. I’ve been in one of those lovely reading whirlwinds where it doesn’t really matter what I’m reading, as long as the pages keep turning and the words keep flowing; the kind of run where you find yourself grabbing at pages whenever a little gap inserts itself in the day, no matter how brief the window.

I’m feeling the need for clean slates at the moment and, while some of these books deserve more than a few brief lines, I’d rather not have a long list of reviews that I’ll likely never write hanging over my head. So I thought I’d try a little experiment and write teeny reviews for the last 10 books I read. That way I’m up to date and we can power on into the glories of autumn/winter reading without any lingering guilt… Here’s the first five, all of which were read in mid to late September.


  1. Louis de Bernieres – The Dust That Falls From Dreams: Given my feelings about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and my penchant for a good love story, I feel like I should have liked this more. The word ‘epic’ is liberally sprinkled over reviews of this book, but I’m not sure it felt that way to me. Covering the years during and after the Second World War, the book follows the McCosh family and, in particular, Rosie McCosh who is loved as a girl by two neighbouring boys in their suburb of London – Daniel Pitt and Ashbridge Pendennis. As the story develops, we find out how the lives of the various characters are impacted by the war and de Bernieres delivers a pretty insightful exploration of the effects of grief but I don’t think I felt the necessary connection to the characters to get fully immersed. Having said that, Rosie’s father Hamish McCosh is well up there on my list of ‘literary characters I’d like to be related to’.
  2. Sarah Winman – A Year of Marvellous Ways: By contrast, I completely loved this gorgeously lyrical tale of 90-year-old Cornish creek-dweller, Marvellous Ways, and the young soldier, Francis Drake, who enters her life just as both need help transitioning from one world to another. A lot of people were put off by Winman’s decision not to use speech marks but I have to say it didn’t bother me in the least and I rather enjoyed the ambiguity that occasionally resulted. And Marvellous’ own love story with the flighty Paper Jack is a beautiful example of just how much you can be made to care with the bare minimum of words.
  3. Naomi Wood – Mrs Hemingway: I’m always a little twitchy about fictional books based on real people; mostly they make me want to go away and read more things to quell the mild anxiety that I now ‘know’ things that aren’t strictly true. However, I found I wasn’t too bothered while reading Wood’s rather poignant exploration of marriage, infidelity and the many different kinds of love. I found it relatively easy to forget Hemingway was ‘Hemingway’ and found myself getting caught up in the world of the women who shared his life instead. They ended up being the people I’d most like to have had a conversation with.
  4. Ali Smith – Public Library and Other Stories: A mixed bag of short stories on a theme that is very dear to my heart. A couple of the stories shone out, a few felt a little inpenetrably crunchy but it could just be that I haven’t spent enough time adjusting to Smith’s style. I loved the overriding ethos of the collection – the idea that we are what we read – and Smith’s preoccupation with words but I have to say that my favourite parts were the sections between the stories where Smith seeks out contributions from other writers about the place of libraries in their own histories.
  5. Vanessa Tait – The Looking Glass House: Unintentionally, I found myself reading another story about real people – in this case, Charles Dodgson and the inspiration behind the ‘Alice’ of his most famous story, Alice Liddell. The story focuses on the birth of Dodgson’s tale but shifts perspectives by relating events through the eyes of Alice’s governess, Mary Prickett. A reasonably absorbing read but the most interesting detail was that the author, Vanessa Tait, is the real-life great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell herself.