The Easy Way Out – Steven Amsterdam

After the (relatively) cheery subjects of my last few posts (plague, experiments on group dynamics, the history of the American West) I’m back to reading books about aging and death. Not horror story death – no ghosts, zombies or monsters – but the reality of people getting older, getting ill, wanting to die. I guess this may not be everyone’s idea of a good plot for a novel but Steven Amsterdam has succeeded in making this story not only eminently readable but also, at times, really funny. Not that he makes light of the subject, or jokes about it, but the language used, the way of describing people and situations, has a real lightness of touch which made me smile often and even laugh occasionally.

9781786480835Evan is a nurse who works in an Australian hospital assisting those who have chosen to die. Interestingly the author is a palliative care nurse himself (and at least one state in Australia did legalise euthanasia briefly in the mid 90s) so I would assume he has met many people whose situations are like those shown in this story. He certainly writes about those who are driven, by illness and age, to seek to end their life with, on the whole, decency and respect. Evan’s relationships – with his rather forceful mother who is struggling with a degenerative illness herself, with colleagues at the hospital he works at and with a gay couple he is in a relationship with – are gone into in detail (the sex scenes may be a little graphic for some): I felt I knew Evan pretty well by the end.

The morality of assisted dying is considered by various people throughout the story – Evan doesn’t tell his lovers what his job is in any detail as he knows they wouldn’t approve – but those who choose it are treated as individuals. Evan, due to his fairly strange relationship with his mother and his father’s death (through suicide) in his childhood, seems to be a fairly detached sort of person. However, a large part of his job involves making sure that he maintains an emotional detachment from his patients so it is interesting to see how he copes with this. His struggles to do his job within the official protocols, however, is more about his wish to be in control of the situation – it is only when he has to come to terms with his mum, Viv’s, deteriorating condition that he gives way emotionally.

I am lucky enough that I have never personally had to deal with any close family member or friend who is ill enough to want euthanasia. Although I like to think that I would respect their wishes I really don’t know how I would react in reality but I think this book has given me plenty to think about.



The Plague Charmer – Karen Maitland

In an odd way I’m quite fond of stories about plague. The historical period (mid 1300s) is one I’m interested in (and have been known to do a bit of peasanting in that general era) and I did go through a phase of reading up on the history of diseases (books like Guns, Germs and Steel fascinated me). And, of course, one of my favourite books of all time has a delightfully bubonic setting.  It’s not weird to be so interested in disease, is it? Oh well, even if it is I am drawn to books which explore how people cope with deadly illnesses beyond their control (or, indeed, understanding). Maybe it is the result of my impressively cast-iron immune system…?

plagueKaren Maitland’s latest, the Plague Charmer, is set firmly in the middle of an outbreak in 1361. The people of Porlock Weir in Devon are just recovering from the last wave of the disease thirteen years previously but we soon see how society has been weakened by repeated bouts of sickness – fear, superstition and the need to find out who has brought the plague down on them (through sin, probably) run right the way through the novel. As the story opens a mysterious woman in pulled, more dead than alive, from the sea. She lives but informs the villagers that the plague is coming: not only that, but she can save them from harm if one person will willingly give up their life. They refuse and, almost immediately, the bodies of two children are washed up in the harbour – too late the villagers realise that the children are victims of plague rather than drowning and then the true horror begins. Neighbours turn on each other, with some truly gruesome scenes where families with infected members are sealed into their houses to survive as best they can. Some turn to religion (although the nearest priest is more keen to hide away than to face the suffering in Porlock Weir), others to what seems like madness but a few decide to seek out the mystery woman and to offer up a life in the hope of turning back the tide of death.

There is an impressive range of characters in this book – a malicious busybody with strange religious leanings, a woman made desperate by the loss of her husband and sons, a young girl who must hide a secret from her husband’s family, a group led by a charismatic figure which could be seen as a sort of cult and Will, who was made rather than born as a dwarf. Their stories entwine with each other’s and also with that of Janiveer, the plague charmer herself, until the threads combine to create a dramatic ending. You could read this as a fantasy novel – there are certainly fantastical elements in there – but I prefer to see it as historical fiction: after all, the facts of history can be every bit as unusual as the most complex of fantasies.



The Terranauts – T.C. Boyle

Back in the not-so-distant past our tv schedules were relatively free of one of our current staples – the reality show. Yes, there was life before the Big Brother’s Strictly Celebrity bake-Off Apprentice hit our screens. There were precursors as early as the 1950s but the first things I’d think of as ‘reality’ shows were the Seven Up series (which started in 1964) and, one I remember watching and being fascinated by as a child, Living In The Past. These were, in fact as much about what could be learned about child development, sociology, group psychology or archaeology as they were about pure entertainment. They could probably be better termed as fly on the wall documentaries but they were shows where we were gripped by the way a group of strangers, unknown to us or each other, coped with situations outside of our everyday experience. I’m not really interested in much of the current crop (unless they involve cakes or charlestons) but always enjoyed the more science/history based ones. And I do recall, from the early 90s, the fuss made – on news programmes rather than just gossip shows – about the Biosphere 2 experiments. Looking back now the science quickly got overtaken by the rather dramatic group dynamics – although the facility is still going it is no longer used as a closed-system experiment. Now it can be used to investigate ecosystems rather than just how nasty a group of people can become when they have no escape in sight…It is possibly no coincidence that the Big Brother franchise was launched within five years of Biosphere 2’s fame.

terranautsI wanted to read T.C. Boyle’s Terranauts because I do remember Biosphere 2. I was fairly young at the time (and not so into the science side) so I only remember it as slightly gossipy news story but, to be fair, if it was anything like Boyle’s fictionalised version it would make a phenomenal reality show! As well as the relationships which develop within the enclosed E2 system (the nameof the facility only slightly changed…) – not complicated ones but ones which are furtive and, often, much less than honest – we also have those with the team on the outside. The book is narrated by three people – Dawn and Ramsay (nicknamed Vodge) inside the facility and Lynda, who is a Terranaut in waiting, on the outside – and they have friendships, power struggles and sexual partners among the other Terranauts, the support teams, locals and the ‘mission control’ team in charge of the whole project. Ramsay is the PR person for the team inside the biomes – the fact that PR is given such a leading role should tell you all you need to know about the conflict between the story which mission control wants to present, of high-minded science and progress, and the reality of starvation, petty arguments and sexual tensions. The group on the inside also have the incentive of not making the mistakes of the previous team – resulting in a mantra of ‘nothing in, nothing out’ which soon seems to be leading to near fatal consequences.

Don’t assume that this means the book is overly serious or ‘worthy’. Although I felt it made some good points about how people (and especially women) are judged on their appearance (with attractive blondes at the top of the heap) and shows a slightly scary team in charge of the Terranauts being headed by a charismatic man who seems, at times, little short of a cult leader there is humour too. Oddly, because it becomes so important to the calorie-starved inmates, there are also lots of descriptions of food. It has a certain amount in common with the Martian – the obsession with providing enough food/calories to survive, the odd issue with maintaining breathable air – which seems perfectly reasonable considering that the whole reason for both the real and the fictional projects is to try to discover ways we could survive on other planets like Mars.




Days Without End – Sebastian Barry

Like most people, it seems, I first came across Sebastian Barry when I read the Secret Scripture. I must have read it in about 2009 – a year after publication, but I was probably a little bit put off by the title (and the thought that the book might be rather more about spirituality than it actually is – I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s just not my thing…) – and by the time I finished it I was mentally kicking myself for leaving it so long. It was a beautifully written book with a very unusual storyline and I think it could still be one of my top 10 books of all time. Barry has touched on members of the McNulty family in other stories so my interest was piqued when I saw that one of the main characters in his new book, Days Without End, was called Thomas McNulty.

51rimwr5pulThomas finds himself in the American West after escaping the results of the potato famine in his native Sligo. He joins forces with another lost youngster, John Cole, and together, after a time working as dancing-girls (pre-puberty) they join the army. They are involved in the brutalities of the Indian wars, although they do end up rescuing a young Indian girl, and then the American Civil War. There is violence, humour, friendship, camaraderie and a very touching love story. We see the horrors of the massacre of whole tribes of native americans, the dark days of Andersonville (a Confederate prison in the Civil War which, rather oddly, I had been talking about with my step-dad only a week or so ago) and the curious lives of miners so starved of female company they will pay good money to dance with young boys in drag. We touch on the experiences of the Irish, escaping the famine-induced death at home, through terrible conditions on board ship to even worse ones in what were, effectively, internment camps on their arrival in the New World. Nor do the Native Americans or freed slaves have any easier a life.  I do trust Barry’s research on all these things – these levels of squalor and degradation were real – but the book is about more than this.

What I remember about the quality of Barry’s writing from the Secret Scripture holds true here too. It is lyrical, poetic – he writes with the lilt of an Irish accent. Not in dialect, although Thomas and John’s turn of phrase is very home-spun and uneducated, but just in a way that makes me think of the musical nature of the voice of a true son of Ireland. I have always thought of myself as one who reads for plot not language – but when words are used this well even I am drawn in by them.



Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

When it comes to the sci-fi and fantasy section at work I tend to lean heavily on the side of fantasy fiction. Terry Pratchett. Trudi Canavan. Tolkien. Sherri Tepper. I’ve dabbled in the harder sci-fi, like the Martian, but I tend to go for something humorous like Douglas Adams or something which blurs the line between fantasy and sci-fi like Anne McCaffrey or Julian May. I tend not to read books set purely on spaceships or space-opera-ish stuff. Rob has hinted that I might like to try Arthur C Clarke but I’ve never taken him up on it – and the fault is mine not Clarke’s, obviously. Maybe it is just that I’m more interested in the human side than the science. Or maybe I tend to associate hard sci-fi with lots of explosions and shouting (which is certainly how the films appear to me), and with characters who are created with more thought to potential action toys than actual human qualities. Not there is anything wrong with blowing stuff up and merchandising but it is not usually my cup of earl grey (hot).  And then, like so many others recently, I discovered Becky Chambers and was re-introduced to the human face of science fiction. Actually to be fair I didn’t so much discover Chambers’ first book, the Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, as give in to the encouragement of many of my bookselling colleagues (and, it seemed, a fairly large chunk of bookish people on Twitter). They enthused me so much that I didn’t even see if I could get a freebie from the publisher (although they were on offer) but went straight for buying my very own copy. I don’t regret it in the slightest, though, as all those folk pushing me towards this marvellous novel were absolutely correct – this was a fabulous book. The fact that it was a debut novel made it even more remarkable.

51l6elkiidlI didn’t show any such restraint when a proof copy of a Closed and Common Orbit – not quite a sequel, more of a linked story – showed up at work. I had really enjoyed getting to know all the characters in the first book – a varied band who gave a whole new meaning to the word ‘diversity’. Humans, aliens of many races, and even a close relationship between a human and the ship’s A.I. system – so I knew I’d be interested in what happened next to some of them. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers about either book so if you haven’t read TLWTASAP (as I understand its fans call it) then I’d nip off and read it now before you carry on with this review. Done? Good, I’ll go on…

Lovelace, the A.I. system from the Wayfarer has been removed from the ship and is currently learning how to exist in a very realistic – but totally illegal – human body. She is helped by Pepper and Blue who obviously have a complicated back-story of their own and, instead of a spaceship, the story is set on a very cosmopolitan planet where commerce and technology seem to be the order of the day. Although there are a lot of differences between this story and the first book what has remained is the importance of great characters. We discover who Lovelace is (or Sidra as she now calls her human form) at the same time that she does – she has to discover how to be human, how to be limited by her own body and how to fit into society – and, as Pepper and Blue’s past is gradually revealed, we realise that there is more than one way of being human. I’ve seen a few negative reviews of Chambers’ writing (but only a very few – the vast majority are hugely positive) which seem to take objection to the fact that qualities like equality, fairness and basic niceness are given such prominence but I think they may be missing the point. This is a universe where humans are pretty much at the bottom of the pecking order and where more enlightened alien races keep control. There is a sense of equality – in terms of gender, colour and species – but there are still taboos (especially in terms of mixed-species relationships). We can see that A.I.s are the very last group to be given equal status just as, in the shape of Sidra/Lovelace, we are learning how much like humans they can be. There are not many explosions but lots of people – and people of every colour, gender, sexuality, species and programming.



French Rhapsody – Antoine Laurain

I’m going to be honest here – I quite like a bit of Euro-pop. I enjoy watching Eurovision (well, I like the actual songs, but the voting can get a bit annoying), know just about all the Abba songs and used to do the whole dance thing for Whigfield’s Saturday Night. I like some of the cooler stuff too – I was listening to Björk when she was still with the Sugarcubes and, thanks to my brother, am pretty familiar with the work of Manu Chao. When it comes down to it, in terms of pure pop, Europe is just plain more cool than the UK. We do cheese: they do ‘fromage'(which I always think sounds much hipper…)

french-rhapsodyWhen I reviewed Antoine Laurain’s previous book I was struck by its charm, subtle romance and all-round general gallic air. I enjoyed it so much that I snapped up the chance to read French Rhapsody, which is where my appreciation of continental pop comes in. Because the heart of this story is Alain Massoulier, a doctor in his 50s, and the band he was a part of in the 1980s. When Alain receives a letter which has been sent over 30 years earlier – offering the band, the Holograms, a recording contract with a major label – he decides to track down the rest. Stan, the drummer, has become a well-known contemporary artist, the keyboard player runs a resort in Thailand, the bass-player is a scarily popular right-wing politician and the singer has returned home to her parent’s hotel near Dijon. The song-writer Pierre died (in a rather dramatic fashion in the window of his antiques store) and his brother, the band’s producer, has become a business guru.

This is another charming story with subtle depths. As well as exploring the lives of the band members we get to consider what they might have been if they had travelled down the trouser leg of reality in which they were pop stars. In the end though we have to focus on life as it actually is rather than might-have-beens. Alain ends the book as a wiser, but possibly a sadder, man: we end the book contemplating whether we’d rather live in a world with 1980s French cold wave music or with 21st century politics. (Clue: as I said, I love a bit of euro-pop…)



The Hidden People -Alison Littlewood

For someone who thought she didn’t read horror/ghost stories I certainly seem to be getting through a few of them recently. To be fair it is October – the time of year when all the creepiest books are released onto readers eager to balance Halloween sweeties with some spine-chilling stories. Of course what I have read quite a lot of in the past are 19th century novels, full of Victorian manners, so how could I not be intrigued by a book which promised to tell me a Victorian tale of suspense (but written in the full knowledge of our twenty-first century world?)  Because as well as being an age of rationality, science and moral rectitude the Victorian era was also an age of fairy tales and folklore – culminating in Bradford’s very own Cottingley fairies in the early part of the 20th century. Alison Littlewood seems to be known as an author of horror and ghost stories but I would say this book, The Hidden People, is more of a dark fairy story. Nothing sparkly or delicate but the kind of fairies who think of humans as something to be used and then discarded. If you’ve ever read Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies you’ll know the sort of thing.

hiddenWe start this book on the rational, scientific side of the age – at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – where young Albie meets hit pretty young country cousin Lizzie. Despite an initial attraction Albie follows his father’s wishes, joining the family firm and marrying a sensible, suitable girl. He forgets all about Lizzie until, shockingly, he hears of her death. In fact, her murder at the hands of her young husband. Albie decides to travel to the little Yorkshire village of Halfoak where Lizzie lived and died and this is where he comes up against what he thinks is superstition and ignorant belief in fairies. Lizzie was killed because her husband believed she was a changeling (and by burning alive because that’s one of the only ways to guarantee killing a fairy). We 21st century readers tend to agree with Albie’s rational view – fairies aren’t real and changelings don’t exist – and yet we, like him, are sucked into an otherworldly atmosphere where the impossible becomes almost believable.

I really liked the way that the reader is kept on edge – Albie, and his wife Helena when she joins him, are changed by Halfoak. Are they bewitched by fairies or do they just suffer some inexplicable breakdown? Early in the story Albie notices that the village clock has three hands so that it can tell local as well as railway time – the whole book leaves us unsure which timeframe we are in: whether we are in a rational or a fantastical world.