Category Archives: Book Reviews
A Monster Calls is the only fictional book I’ve ever bought purely because I was interested in the illustrations.
I first heard about the book in a Sunday newspaper supplement in which illustrator Jim Kay described the process of creating an imaginary monster for a new children’s novel by Patrick Ness. I was so intrigued by Kay’s explanations of using ink splats, splodges and rubbings from bits of wood to produce textures and patterns, that I just had to see the results for myself.
The finished illustrations are gobsmackingly brilliant. Patrick Ness imagined his monster emerging from a yew tree as a huge, gnarled, creaking, spiky thing. In Kay’s stark black and grey drawings, you get not only a sense of the monster’s scale, but its earthy origins. Hands fashioned from twigs and bark like legs topped with a crown of thorns.
Some scenes are rendered on a single page, others spread across several pages with motifs repeated as smaller drawings elsewhere in the book.
You turn a page on which you’ve just read about the creature that comes knocking on a young boy’s bedroom window, and suddenly you see this huge shape yourself. As a young reader I think I have been petrified. But here’s the really clever part: although the illustrations are detailed, they still leave huge scope for the imagination. There’s plenty of ambiguity for the reader to interpret the scene for themselves.
I’m conscious I haven’t really talked about the narrative but don’t think that’s because I felt the text was somehow inferior to the illustrations. A Monster Calls is in fact a book where the illustrations and text are in perfect harmony. That’s an astonishing achievement considering that Patrick Ness and Jim Kay never met until after the book was completed. They communicated entirely through a third party – the art director at Walker Books, Kay told The Guardian newspaper in a 2012 interview.
A Monster Calls is a fantasy novel aimed at young teen readers. It follows 13-year-old Conor O’Malley who lives alone with his ailing mum. Dad isn’t much on the scene because he’s living in America with his a new family. Conor’s grandmother occasionally makes an appearance, but she’s not the “crinkley and smiley with white hair” kind of grandma who giggles at Christmas after a glass of sherry. That’s how grandmas are supposed to look and act, in Connor’s view but his
… wore tailored trouser suits, dyed her hair to keep out the grey, and said things that made no sense at all, like ‘Sixty is the new fifty’ or ‘Classic cars need the most expensive polish.’ What did that even mean? She emailed birthday cards, argued with waiters and still had a job.
Which leaves the boy isolated and alone, unable to express his fears about his mother who is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. There’s no-one he can tell either that he is being bullied at school.
A Monster Comes Calling
For months Connor’s sleeo is disturbed by the same nightmare, “the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming”. One night at precisely 12:07, he hears a voice outside his bedroom window, calling him. Peering out he encounters a towering mass of branches and leaves in human shape, a monster who insists Connor has summoned him.
The monster continues to meet Connor to tell him stories that all touch on the complexity of human emotions and decisions. As the novel progresses, his mother’s condition worsens and Connor’s encounters with the monster unleash an aggressive reaction in the boy.
Why does the monster keep re-appearing? We don’t discover this, or the exact nature of Connor’s nightmare, until the very end of the book. Unlike many books written for children, this one doesn’t have a happy-ever- after kind of ending. Patrick Ness never shrinks from showing a child’s fear of loss and their frustration with their inability to control the future. I thought this was a sad but profound novel that treats a difficult topic of terminal illness with great sensitivity.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness: Endnotes
The novel was written based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd, She was terminally ill with cancer herself when she had the idea for the story but died before she could complete it. Walker Books commissioned Patrick Ness to write the book although as Ness says in an afterword to my edition, he he used the preliminary idea but gave it a completely different spin.
Patrick Ness and Jim Kay won the Carnegie and Greenaway Medals for writing and illustration in 2012, making A Monster Calls the only novel to have won both children’s literary awards in 50 years.
You’ll find samples of Jim Kay’s illustrations for the book on his website. His other work, including the illustrations for the Harry Potter books, is just as impressive.
When Eve Smith conceived the plot for her debut novel, The Waiting Rooms, the world was blissfully unaware of Covid-19.
Terms like social distancing, the R Rate and viral load hadn’t entered our daily vocabulary and people over 70 weren’t made to feel scared just because of their age. To the average person, death from a pandemic was something that happened far away from their own neighbourhood.
Our new familiarity with the effect of a global health crisis makes the premise of The Waiting Room more believable, more real and definitely more chilling.
A World In Danger
Eve Smith creates a world where antibiotics have been over-used for so long they no longer work. Without effective antibiotics, conditions like pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, are becoming more difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat. Even a simple injury, like a scratch from your cat, or a mouthful of contaminated water at the swimming pool can be lethal.
Countries respond with travel restrictions, strict border controls, trade embargoes and a desperate drive to find vaccines and treatments. Printed books and libraries become a thing of the past because they can spread infection. ‘Declawed’ breeds of cats become popular pets and entire populations become accustomed to body scans and profile checks as part of infection control.
The UK, one of the worst affected countries, takes even more drastic measures. All citizens have to undergo regular health screening and must show their results before entering buildings or taxis. The few antibiotics that do work, are reserved for those under the age of 70. Anyone over that threshold who picks up an infection is sent to hospitals nicknamed ‘The Waiting Rooms.’ Understandably, the encroachment of a 70th birthday is no cause for celebration.
My stomach churns. It’s a Pavlovian response; it happens every time I look at my calendar.
Those white paper squares are like a game of Sudoku. Each day has a number at the bottom written in the same black felt-tip pen: the one with a rubber tube around its middle, like those used by infants who are struggling to write.
Forty-eight days until my birthday. The big seven-o.
This is no childish anticipation. Quite the opposite. Cut-off. That’s the expression they like to use.
Rolls off the tongue a bit quicker than ‘no longer eligible for treatment’.
For those who do end up in a Waiting Room, there is so little chance of recovery, that many prefer to sign a euthanasia directive.
Twenty years after the crisis takes hold, a hospital nurse who works in one of the Waiting Rooms begins a search for her birth mother. Kate discovers disturbing facts about her mother’s involvement in a scandalous programme to find a cure for tuberculosis .
Thought-provoking pacy novel
Switching from the grasslands of South Africa to hospitals and care homes in the UK, and from the present to 27 years earlier, when a new legal strain of tuberculosis began sweeping Africa, The Waiting Rooms, combines the pace of a mystery novel with a meticulously researched issue-based plot.
Eve Smith ambitiously chose a complex narrative structure for the novel. Alongside the alternating settings and time-lines there are three rotating narratives. One features Kate, another her birth mother Mary and the third focuses on an elderly scientist called Lily who is a resident at an upmarket retirement home (it’s becomes clear that Lily and Mary are the same woman).
In between these narratives, we get snippets of media stories based on government announcements about the pandemic and its effect on the country. They often sounds just like the kind of pronouncements we can expect from the current UK government in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.
… the slump is set to continue, with the budget deficit at its highest point since the Antibiotic Crisis. The government defended its position arguing that any reductions in healthcare spending or arbitrary policy changes would be “highly irresponsible” and that recovery would be “a long term process.
These sections provide important context for the events of the novel but I found some of them somewhat jarring. As a former journalist I thought the style of the “media reports” often didn’t ring true. At one point for example, Kate is on her way into work when she encounters an anti-euthanasia protest and is accosted by a journalist.
‘Hey! Hey you!’ shouts the reporter. ‘We’d like to hear your thoughts on legalised killing.’
That phrase ‘We’d like to hear your thoughts’ belongs more in a cosy interview with an academic than amid the mayhem of a demonstration and is not a form of words any journalist would use in those circumstances.
Representations of the media in novels is one of my bête noires. I got over it in this novel because in all other respects, Eve Smith has created in The Waiting Rooms, a world so believable it is petrifying.
Chilling Sense of Reality
In case readers are in any doubt that the antibiotic crisis is feasible or that the over 70s will be the most adversely affected, a postscript to the novel should provide food for thought. Writing about the inspiration for her novel and the premise of the over-70s “cut off”, Eve Smith points to the fact that in the UK, a quarter of all antibiotic prescriptions are for people above 75 years-old.
A recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health claims that ageism is the most commonly experienced form of prejudice and discrimination in the UK and Europe. Compounding this, we have social-care systems and health services already in crisis and needs are only going to increase. Put all this together and you have the perfect storm.
The Waiting Rooms by Eve Smith: Endnotes
The Waiting Rooms was published by Orenda Books in ebook format on 9 April, 2020 with the paperback to follow on on 9 July. Thanks to Orenda for providing an advance copy of the book in return for an honest review.
Eve Smith was inspired to write the book after she read “some scary facts” about antibiotic resistance. If you want to delve into this and other issues covered in the novel, such as tuberculosis and poaching, take a look at the factual information provided on her website.
In her memoir In Order To Live, Yeonmi Park lifts the veil of secrecy that surrounds life in the brutal and paranoid dictatorship of North Korea.
Its leadership loves to posture on the international stage, getting into stand-offs with the US and South Korea and using parades and rocket launches to show off its military might.
One thing that’s harder to discover is what really goes on inside the so-called “hermit kingdom.” Visitors are not welcome and the media is so strictly controlled that few details ever make their way outside the borders, unless through the testimonies of defectors.
Childhood In World of Fear
Yeonmi Park defected in 2007, spending the next two years in constant fear that she would be discovered and returned to North Korea, to face either starvation or imprisonment. In Order To Live is her frank account of a childhood in a country where mind control, servitude and fear are used to subjugate an entire population.
Her family was initially prosperous but their status plummeted when her father was imprisoned for trading on the black market. Her mother was then taken in for questioning and other family members were penalised. Without the required status, Yeonmi’s future hopes of attending university and training as a doctor, evaporated. Soon after, the family began a decline that they believed would end only one way – death through malnutrition.
At the age of 13 she and her mother fled the country, escaping to China in a perilous night-time journey across a frozen river. They believed they had reached freedom only to discover in the first hour on Chinese soil they had been duped. Though they had food they were the victims of human trafficking.
We had come to a bad place, maybe even worse than the one I left.
Park’s narrative chronicles the pair’s harrowing ordeal over two years when they were exploited by Chinese marriage brokers. It took another dangerous journey, walking across the Gobi desert at night, in sub zero temperatures, to escape into Mongolia and subsequently to South Korea.
Today Yeonmi Park is a human rights activist, speaking out against the North Korean regime and appealing to the world to help the people still suffering in her home country. She got that coveted university place, became a television personality (appearing on a talk and talent show featuring North Korean defectors) married and became a mother.
Confronting The Past
It’s an astonishing and powerful story. One that Park was initially reluctant to tell, wanting – understandably – to put the past behind her and to blend more easily into her new life. But she realised that in order to be “completely free,” she had to confront the truth of her past. The turning point was when she read a line from Joan Didion: “We tell our stories in order to live.”
I felt the truth of those words echoing inside me. I understand that sometimes the only way we can survive our own memories is to shape them into a story that makes sense out of events that seem inexplicable.
It’s a remarkable book. Questions have apparently been raised about the accuracy of her narrative and inconsistencies between different accounts of her experience. I suspect that she has skirted over some details of her time in China and her relationship with her handler. But I’m left in no doubt from reading this book that Yeonmi is a young woman who has huge reserves of strength and determination to survive against tremendous odds.
Reading To Live
When she arrived in South Korea, for example, she had the education level of an eight year old. But she was determined to achieve her goal of a university place. When local schools didn’t meet her study requirements, , she stayed home and just read.
…all I did was read. I inhaled books like other people breathed oxygen. I didn’t just read for knowledge or pleasure. I read to live. … I read to fill my mind and to block out the bad memories.
As much as her story pulls on the heartstrings, it was Yeonmi’s reflections on opinions among North Korean people towards their leadership that I found particularly interesting.
She skilfully details the ways in which North Koreans are taught from birth that their leaders are like all-powerful gods. Such is the level of indoctrination that as a child, Yeonmi Park considered it unthinkable to show disrespect for the leadership. Like her classmates she joined enthusiastically in military games (nobody wanted to be on the hated “imperialist American” team ) and believed their leader Kim Jong II to be a benevolent father to his people.
Truth And Reality
Yet there were people, including her father, who (silently) questioned the propaganda of a North Korean socialist paradise. Illegal access to Chinese and South Korean television programmes showed people in “enemy nations” enjoying plentiful food, clothing and reliable power electricity while in North Korea, emaciated bodies regularly turned up in rubbish heaps and the streets were full of people crying for help.
North Koreans have two stories running in their heads at all times, like trains on parallel tracks. One is what you are taught to believe; the other is what you see with your own eyes. It wasn’t until I escaped to South Korea and read a translation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four that I found a word for this particular condition: doublethink.
This “doublethink” is how you can shout slogans denouncing capitalism in the morning, then browse through the market in the afternoon to buy smuggled South Korean cosmetics.
If you’ve ever wondered how it must feel to live in an oppressive society and to yearn for freedom, this book is one you won’t want to miss. I suspect it’s a selective account, emphasising some of the darker elements to give more of a mass-market, commercial appeal. But it’s no less valuable for that. It’s not only an account of one of the most secretive nations in the world, it’s a narrative that demonstrates the strength of the human spirit and one young woman’s incredible determination to live.
In Order To Live: Endnotes
Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea in 1993, escaped to China in 2007 and settled in South Korea in 2009. She rose to global prominence after she delivered an emotional speech at the One Young World 2014 Summit in Dublin, Ireland, calling on the world to help the millions of people suffering at the hands of the North Korean regime. Her speech received 50 million views in two days on YouTube and social media
Her memoir In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom, was written in collaboration with Maryanne Vollers and published in 2015.
Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some parts of her narrative and inconsistencies in details. For example, whether it was true, as she describes in the book, that her family was so close to starvation that she and her elder sister would forage in the countryside for “wild plants and insects to fill our stomachs”, and her father would eat snow to fill himself.
Yeonmi has defended herself against the accusations in The Diplomat, explaining that some of the inconsistencies were due to her lack of English language skills. She also apologised that her childhood memories were not perfect.
Her co-writer Maryanne Vollers told The Guardian newspaper in 2015 that she had verify Yeonmi’s story through family members and fellow defectors who knew her in North Korea and China.
2014 Speech at One World conference, Dublin
2015 Interview (BBC)
Slate is boring isn’t it? It’s just the stuff used to make roof tiles or – if you’ve adopted the trend of recent years – to decorate your garden borders and paths. Definitely not something to get excited about.
But for the people who class themselves as “slateheads”, slate is anything but dull. They revel in the way it changes according to the light and moisture. Far more significantly, they view climbing great slabs of slate as an unsurpassable, exhilarating experience.
The abandoned slate quarries of North Wales are a magnate for these enthusiasts. Among them is Peter Goulding, a northerner by birth who has fallen in love with the ridges, fissures and square-cut galleries in the rock faces and the waterfalls of scree that plunge down to old quarry buildings and lakes.
Slatehead: The Ascent of Britain’s Slate-climbing Scene is Goulding’s award-winning account of a slate climbing culture that has grown up since the 1980s. He was a latecomer to the party but, just like his predecessors, he fell in love with the quarries around Snowdonia. He has become, he says, “a connoisseur of the beauty and fear of the quarries.”
Slate carved from this part of North Wales was once sent all around the world. At their peak, each quarry employed thousands of men. But then the industry largely collapsed and, one by one, the quarries closed. The abandoned tunnels, train tracks, and explosives sheds present an alien almost apocalyptic vista, made doubly eerie by the noise of the rock plates as they rub against each other.
I can remember seeing these quarries on a family holiday in North Wales when I was a child. Driving through them in the mist and rain (yes it does rain a lot in Wales), they looked desperately bleak and ugly.
Slatehead illustrates both the awful magnificence of this landscape but also its natural beauty.
On a climb one day Goulding takes a backward glance at his route. Behind him is
the black chasm of Hades, a great split in the rock into which the screen pours down. The waterfall trickles away into the fissures and hollows of the mountain, never filling it up. I shudder, and not from the cold of the damp shadows.
On other days it’s the way the light catches the slate that attracts his attention, making flashes of purple and pinkish grey visible among the heather and moss.
It’s one of the reasons why, after his first visit in 2014, he fell in love with slate climbing. With each visit he challenged himself to tackle ever more technically difficult ascents and routes.
The technical aspects of the book passed me by. I know what a carabiner clip looks like but I’ve no idea what a belay involves (it’s a safety mechanism apparently) or the difference between clove hitch, lark’s foot and Italian hitches.
But that mattered not a jot because what kept me engrossed was the spirit of determination and adventure that unites Peter with the pioneers of quarry climbing. Working class climbers like the legendary Joe Brown, were followed by drop outs, punks, the unemployed and petty criminals.
Together they created some of the toughest, scariest climbs in the region, with ever more creative names. Cemetery Gates and Cenotaph Corner give you an inkling of the danger they present but where did Disillusioned Screw Machine, Jumping On A Beetle and Orangutang Overhang come from? I don’t imagine any of them are as much fun as their names suggest.
I’m certainly not in a hurry to get close and personal with any of them. Slatehead was an absorbing account of a deep and abiding love for rock and the joys and thrills of ascending its heights.
Slatehead by Peter Goulding: Endnotes
Peter Goulding is a climber from the north of England who spent most of his working life in pubs, kitchens and on building sites. He currently works at a Center Parcs village as an instructor. He completed the creative writing programme at the University of East Anglia.
I’m counting this towards my #20booksofsummer reading project.
Anne Enright’s seventh novel, Actress, is a joyous read from start to finish. For emotional insight and pitch-perfect characterisation it would be hard to beat this study of a mother-daughter relationship set in the fickle world of the stage and screen.
The actress is Katherine O’Dell, a stunning red haired woman with “a glorious voice”, who became the darling of Hollywood and the Irish stage. But her fairy tale rise to fame came with a price: her life was marred by loneliness; insecurity and predatory men. When the plum roles dried up, the pressure of trying to remain the limelight provoked a mental breakdown.
After Katherine’s death, her daughter Norah tries to make sense of her mother’s life, sifting fact from fiction. But how can you make sense of a woman whose career is devoted to persuading people she is inhabiting the skin of an entirely different person. Even Norah can’t be certain where Katherine O’Dell, the actress ends, and Katherine O’Dell mother begins.
Reality of Stardom
For Katherine can cry at will (from one or both eyes as the role demands). She can also switch on the actressy persona merely by a flick of her wrist, the set of her shoulders and a slight change in her voice. She was, says her daughter, a star “not just on screen or on the stage, but at the breakfast table also.”
So much of Kathleen’s life turns out to be concocted. She wasn’t even Irish, acquiring the accent on her agent’s recommendation as she took her career to America. She changed her name (transforming Odell into the more Irish sounding O’Dell) and turned her hair a more prominent shade of red. Hollywood studio bosses went further still, commanding her to marry her screen partner so he could hide his homosexuality.
The fictional construct also enveloped her daughter. Norah recalls how her twenty-first birthday party, with star-studded guest list, was a completely “staged” affair. The expensive gown she was given to wear “a swamp-green and sickish pink thing with tulle pompoms on a long tulle skirt” and the start-studded guest list were both part of the charade. But the masterstroke was her Katherine’s grand entrance, bearing the celebration cake and singing to her daughter.
Norah however feels no bitterness at the way she was used as a prop. A newspaper photograph of the party showed her gazing adoringly at her glamorous mother. It has, she reflects, been made true by the passage of years.
The picture adds to the lie that I am a poor copy of my mother, that she was timeless and I am not – the iconic gives birth to the merely human. But that was not how it was between us. That is not how we felt about ourselves.
Burning Question of Parenthood
As Norah tries to untangle her mother’s life, she is also telling the story of her own life. We learn of her boyfriends, the traumatic experience of an undesired sexual encounter and the comfort of her marriage. Her narrative is an attempt to unravel the biggest mystery of her life: who was her father? It’s one of the subjects about which Katherine never spoke, simply brushing the question aside every time it was raised. The father thus remains, for Norah a “ghost in my blood.”
Anne Enright brilliantly evokes the world of performing artists. The exhilaration when the lights are on and the ears ring with applause. But there is also the constant need for reassurance, if only from the five-year-old daughter watching from the wings, “that the performance was not a disaster.” And then the years in the wasteland when she’s too old to play a young character, but too young to play an old woman.
Actress seeks to understand the essence of stardom and what makes one actor great and another so-so. For Norah, star quality and acting ability are not synonymous; stars she, comments, “are not actors – some of them, indeed, are very bad actors.” Stars in her view, are “born, not made”, they have a stillness that shines through in their best performances. It was a quality that Katherine exhibited every time she stepped out onto the stage i her younger days:
No matter how often she did it, there is no getting over that moment when she stepped out into the light. The play was waiting for her, just over that line. It was in the gestures and declamations , it was in the words as they rolled . Her real and destined self was right there, a space she could step into, or that stepped into her. Each time.
There are multiple strands to this novel, woven slickly together in a narrative that moves back, forward and back in time, Katherine’s story – and that of her daughter – is revealed in fragments through recall, questioning and examination. Such is the nature of memory that by the end we’re still left with some questions unresolved and some loose threads left dangling.
The Actress by Anne Enright: Endnotes
Anne Enright was born in Dublin in 1962, studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, and went on to study for an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.
Her early novels were well received (The Wig My Father Wore was shortlisted for the Irish Times/Aer Lingus Irish Literature Prize and What Are You Like? was shortlisted for The Whitbread Novel Award). It was The Gathering, her 2007 novel about a large family re-uniting for a funeral, that earned her an international following and cemented her reputation.
Actress , published by Jonathan Cape, has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020.