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Category Archives: book reviews

Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

Tastes Like Fear by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary’s London is full of shadows, darkness, underground places where people can vanish; places full of people, estates, tower blocks, all with blind spots and corners around which people disappear. A young girl running away from something, or someone, causes a car crash. Another girl is missing. Around a table, three well behaved young girls eat dinner served by a slightly older girl, presided over by a man. His name is Harm. On an estate an elderly woman watches warily from her window, noting names and times of the kids outside running riot. What links these people?

This is the third DI Marnie Rome book and if you are a fan of the others in the series you won’t be disappointed. Hilary’s customary intelligence and storytelling verve are in full force. It’s amazing how chilling words on a page can be. There’s a smashing twist that I genuinely didn’t see coming, oh, and tantalising snippets woven in about Stephen Keele, the killer of Rome’s parents, whose story we MUST learn one day.

I can’t say more for fear of spoilers, so I’ll leave you with this:

“The kitchen reeked of wax. Fourteen candles burning but they didn’t make it brighter, just dragged in more of the darkness. Greedily, the way his pain pulled at her, at everything.”

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

 

My dad died on February 15th and my world transformed. I am grief-stricken. It’s no surprise that I have turned to books seeking solace, or at least some kind of understanding. The first book I read was “When Breath Becomes Air” which in retrospect I found unsatisfactory and unhelpful. “The Way We Die Now” though has been a strangely compelling read despite its rather stark message. Right from the introduction O’Mahony warns us, “This is not a book of consolation; death is simply affliction and the end of our days. We are frail and vulnerable animals.”

He argues persuasively and passionately against the over medicalisation of death. As a Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cork University Hospital Dr O’Mahony has seen many people die and he uses a mixture of personal anecdotes, patient anecdotes, and high profile celebrity deaths, to highlight how our society places faith in medicine and expects to live despite disease. He explains how many patients receive what he believes to be useless treatments; procedures that take place for the sake of the hospital being seen to do something, often at the expense of a patient’s comfort. CPR that takes place after death is common apparently (and he is clear that CPR is rarely successful as it is in medical dramas. It’s a brutal technique that can leave people permanently damaged if they do survive.) Speaking about the overuse of PEG feeding he says “The procedure became for me a symbol of the medicalisation of death, and of the failure of modern medicine to care humanely for those most in need of its help.”

He is wonderfully dismissive of Kugler-Ross’s famous five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “The power and terror of death refuses to be tamed by workshops, by trite formulae.” The myth of a “good death” is exploded. It is likely we will die whilst sedated and pain-free thanks to a syringe driver. We won’t make profound death bed statements, we won’t even speak. We will be removed from our own death, but that saves us from dying in terror and pain. There is rarely a peaceful, stoic acceptance. That word terror catches me and makes me realise I had some fairy story death narrative in my head where gradually people slip away. Here’s my comfort, such as it is, my dad died unexpectedly. His heart stopped. He did not know he was dying. We did not have the agonies of having to decide for him what interventions he should endure so that we could keep him with us. I fear I would have insisted on all of them, though I hope I would not have.

O’Mahony writes he was “…deeply impressed by how Catholic ritual – after the deaths of my great-uncle and father in-law – guided the bereaved during the days immediately following their deaths.” The issue in a secular society where “Evangelical atheism has accelerated the flight from religion” is how to find this kind of comfort, and he suggests we worry less about believing and be content with simply belonging. This really chimed with me. Dad had a full Catholic funeral; his body was received into church the night before and his priest led us gently through the rituals and beliefs. During the funeral he took the same care to explain. It felt unimportant I don’t share those beliefs. I was immensely grateful for this acknowledgement of loss and grief, this solemnity, this tribute to my dad.

The book explores “deluded optimism” where patients, doctors, and family and friends collude in a pretence there is hope where there is none. What bloody fools we are that we think we can tame death. There is so much that is interesting here; the fact that patients who have combined oncology/palliative care live on average 25% longer than those who forge on with treatment (seeing hospices as an admission of failure), and that doctors apparently often choose not to undergo extensive treatment themselves. The idea that doctors offer treatment because they don’t know what else to do and need to be seen as doing something is troubling, yet the instinct is to want them to do every possible thing to save the lives of those we love.

How afraid we are, of course, and we are right to be. There’s no magic here, but this is a cool, intelligent look at death, right in its ghastly, deathy face.

Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald

I was given Adult Onset by my boss. (I think she is my reading twin and it’s very cool to have met someone whose reading tastes seems to chime so exactly with my own.) I’d never heard of Ann-Marie MacDonald before, but wow, Adult Onset is a stunning novel and MacDonald is an exceptional writer.

The novel is about motherhood and family and how the past informs the present. I won’t be able to do it justice here. Please trust me when I say it’s rare to read someone who writes with such insight and has the ability to portray the workings of a mind reaching for distant truths with such clarity.

Mary Rose is marred to Hilary. They have adopted one child and Hilary has given birth to another. Mary Rose has chosen to stay home and be “Mumma” and during the week in which the novel takes place Hilary is working away. Beginning on Monday and finishing on Sunday we journey alongside Mary Rose as she negotiates her way through the days of toddler tantrums, domestic crises, parent’s, siblings, and her aching arm; the result of childhood bone cysts, which niggles and nags and flares, beginning the examination of her past.

This book is so damn quotable. Paragraph after paragraph of amazing writing.

“How do you tell yourself what you already know? If you have successfully avoided something, how do you know you have avoided it?”

And

“Mary Rose felt guilty for not feeling warm and happy. Instead of melting into a smile, she felt her face go positively Soviet in a pre-glasnost kind of way. She knew she looked like Brezhnev and there was nothing she could do about it. If she rummaged in her basement, she could probably find the box marked WARM AND HAPPY. But who knew what else might be down there, she didn’t have time to go through it all.”

And

“Mary Rose has thought Rochelle socially awkward, but it dawns on her now that Rochelle may be that rare personality type, the Fearless Pauser.”

So excellent. I will now hunt down everything she has written.

Incidentally, I knew nothing about the author until after I finished reading. I thought this the finest novel I’ve read since Miriam Toews’ superb “All My Puny Sorrows” and it’s interesting to discover that not only are both Canadian, but that this novel is also apparently somewhat autobiographical. I think there’s something incredibly powerful about the truth that comes from fiction and wonder if what makes these novels so strong is the honesty that resonates with the reader.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s short fiction has appeared in many of the literary journals I’ve read over the last eight years or so. She’s editor of the mighty PANK. She writes a wonderful blog. Her non-fiction has appeared in many esteemed publications. She basically rules Twitter with her always interesting observations. She has a very clear, authoritative voice and I have long had a complete writer crush on her. Her collection of essays “Bad Feminist” has just been published in the UK. It’s currently number 13 in the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. Roxane Gay is really successful now which is amazing and fabulous and so bloody well deserved. 

A collection of her stories – “Ayiti” – was published in 2011 which I reviewed here. Interestingly the passage I quoted from “Things I Know About Fairytales” features in her debut novel “An Untamed State” which continues exploring the chasm in Haiti between the rich and poor and contrasts it with life in the US. 

Mireille Duval James is a young woman from Haiti who lives in America. She is smart and feisty, an attorney married to an American man, Michael. They have a baby son, Christophe. Returning to Port-au-Prince to visit her wealthy, successful parents, Mireille, Michael and Christophe set off for the beach when their car is surrounded by a group of violent criminals who abduct Mireille, demanding a huge ransom. Her father, Sebastien, refuses to pay, believing that negotiating with the kidnappers can only endanger other members of his family.

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.

     They held me captive for thirteen days.

     They wanted to break me.

     It was not personal.

     I was not broken.

     This is what I tell myself.

    

What follows is a difficult read. Gay’s powerful prose explores the brutality and violence that is inflicted upon Mireille day after day. I flinched from the words. This is not a book I could look forward to reading. It’s a depiction of a woman being abused in every way imaginable. The first part weaves stories from Mireille and Michael’s relationship with time from her imprisonment. It’s necessary to have the relief the memories of their courtship offer. The second part deals with the aftermath. How does a woman survive such atrocities? Tortured, gang raped, imprisoned, how can Mieille possibly move forwards? 

It’s a novel about family: Mireille’s parents and the compromises her mother makes, her father, her sister, Michael’s parents, their son, Christophe. It’s also about personal endurance, self-preservation, the political implications of poverty, violence, domination, hope and courage.  It’s an impossibly dark read. And very powerful.

When I finished reading I googled to find out more about Port-au-Prince and kidnapping. The UK government issues a warning that they will not negotiate with kidnappers believing, as Mireille’s father does, that it only increases the likelihood of more kidnaps. The BBC warn “No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender, or age.” 

Horrifying.

 

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

“All My Puny Sorrows” (what an excellent title!) by Miriam Toews is an extraordinary book about two sisters (Elfrieda and Yoli) and their Mennonite family. It’s Yoli’s first person account of how Elf attempts suicide and begs for Yoli’s help to die. What makes it so special is how Toews takes this devastating material and manages to make it consistently witty, genuinely funny, and real. Her own sister committed suicide, as did their father. It’s as if Toews is reporting directly from the frontline of grief. She’s such a talented writer that she’s somehow managed to form this tragic raw material into an incredible novel.

It is full of so many great lines that I highlighted huge chunks of the book. From incidental throwaways such as this:

“I hope she doesn’t have an eating disorder. I’ve read that eating disorders are often the fault of overbearing mothers, but I’m so underbearing it’s not even funny. Maybe she’s imagined an overbearing mother to compensate for my lack of bearing and it’s this imaginary pushy mother that’s caused her to have an eating disorder. She doesn’t have an eating disorder, not really. I shouldn’t try to blame something that doesn’t even exist on an imagined imaginary mother.”

To criticisms of the medical staff on the psychiatric ward for their lack of attention to Elf as she refused to obey their directions:

“Nurses in cardio are far more playful and friendly than they are in psych.
If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.”

Yoli always feels spot on. I imagine she’d be the best wise-cracking stoic friend a gal could have. How she and her mother endure is wonderfully life-affirming. 


This is my book of the year. Yeah, already. I honestly doubt anything else can make me feel this way. From the perfect title, the perfect cover, to the perfect prose it’s all astonishingly good.

Read it! Read it! Read it!

 

 

That Dark Remembered Day by Tom Vowler

Vowler has a keen eye for nature and roots us in a landscape whose bleakness matches the dark heart of the story. Stephen narrates the opening and closing of this novel, the middle two parts voiced by his mother and father, and through them we explore a devastating crime. Stephen has returned “home” twenty years on to visit with his ill mother. Driving through the village, drinking in the local pub, walking by the river, he is surrounded by people and memories from the past. His stay forces him to confront what happened and the impact it has had on not only his life, but the lives of all who were there. The dreadful crime at the heart of the story is kept from the reader until the end, unfolding gradually in the telling. I found the mother’s voice the most interesting and wished she could have been allowed more light in a life which seemed impossibly harsh.
This exploration of post traumatic stress woven into a compelling story is a real tragedy.

 

vowler

 

Stay tuned for Tom Vowler’s Smash Lits.

 

 

Thirst by Kerry Hudson

Thirst is a joyous read despite its depiction of poverty, violence, abuse and deprivation. It is sliced through with warmth and fizzes with energy from start to finish, just as Hudson’s debut, Tony Hogan… did.

Security Guard Dave meets Alena when she shoplifts from the swanky London department store he works in. Both of them have been battered by life and they are, each in their own way, broken and desperately in need of kindness. And both have secrets.

Alena left her Siberian housing estate to journey to London where she hoped to find a better life. Dave has always dreamt of leaving his estate and travelling. Real life isn’t like that though and both have had their dreams destroyed. When they come together they are uneasy and wary. The things that have happened to Alena have transformed her. She’s had to psychologically armour herself. This is a story of love and redemption, but Hudson’s customary realism ensures there’s no fairy story guaranteed happy ever after. (I was holding out for a “maybe a bit content for a period of time” ending and nope, I won’t tell you if that happened or not.)

I raced through the book, eager to know what would happen. It’s an engaging, bright, beautiful novel with an important heart. Blimey, Kerry Hudson is good. 

Come back tomorrow to read Kerry’s answers to my Smash Lits questions.