Monthly Archives: February 2017
Fragile Lives by Stephen Westaby
The balance between life and death is so fine, something we take for granted as we go about our busy lives every day. Professor Stephen Westaby a Heart Surgeon has dedicated his life in the pursuit of saving people’s lives. This is his life story in his own words a truly remarkable memoir of an outstanding career. When I was approached my Harper Collins if I would review Fragile Lives I have to admit to being concerned as I have been through heart surgery over recent years and the concern and worry this has brought not only to my but family and friends.
Stephen Westaby is not just a renowned heart surgeon but he is a pioneer of new heart surgery techniques that have saved many lives. He is a no-nonsense surgeon and this really comes through in his own words through the pages of Fragile Lives. For Stephen Westaby this is his story in his own words on how ‘the back-street boy’ from Scunthorpe decided he wanted to be a Cardiac surgeon all this at the very young age of 7 years.
This is a no-holds barred memoir that tells it straight it life and death. Sadly, it really is as simple as that. My emotions were shot by the time I finished reading, every life is precious as he describes some of the cases he has treated and not just in the UK either. At times I found my emotions just got to me having been through heart surgery and knowing what was involved. Fragile Lives may not be for everyone as it can be quite graphic in detail at times but it really gives an insight to the inner workings of the heart and also at the same time the strain that Stephen Westaby was under. Every life matters. Sadly, not all make it through. There is also a price to be paid for a life devoted to saving others and Westaby’s own private life especially with his first wife and children suffered as a direct consequence.
It is incredible the amount of progress that has been made since the 1960’s when so many died from a heart attack now so many are saved and this is because of the dedication of Cardiac surgeons like Stephen Westaby and he is also a flag waver for the NHS and is not afraid of taking a swing at those running the NHS as he clearly states ‘The rise and fall of the NHS’ We owe so much to surgeons like Westaby and many owe their lives to them that is why we must do everything in our power from allowing The Grim Reaper to take the NHS. It must survive for future generations.
Fragile Lives is an outstanding memoir from an outstanding man who we should all be extremely grateful to. There is humility mixed with some dry humour. Life and Death in their hands it is but one book that should not be missed. I for one will always be more grateful than I can put into words for Cardiac Surgeons like Professor Stephen Westaby. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
Thank you to Caroline Saramowicz for the advanced review copy.
Fragile Lives by Professor Stephen Westaby is published by Harper Collins and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
Delighted at last to discover the writing of Gwendoline Riley and her latest novel First Love which you may think could well be a love story, actually this is something yet more terrifying in an all-consuming little book that I devoured on a train journey to London at times brutal and visceral we see a couple’s marriage falling apart and every sinew of human emotion exposed on every page.
We are introduced to Neve who is a thirty something writer and she is married to Edwyn who is older and is suffering from an illness which means he is pain a lot of the time and this is something that is constantly there. To understand Neve we have to turn the pages of time back to when she was a child and watched her parent’s marriage fail and then the ensuing divorce. Neve decided that she wanted distance from both parents especially her bullying father yet at the same time she cannot cut the ties with him. By the time she was in her twenties alcohol played a part in her life and bounced through friendships and partners and yet there is a sense of loneliness at the same time even when she spent time France.
Now with Edwyn that sense of loneliness is still present as Edwyn is a controlling character who recognises that he can control Neve by throwing childish tantrums to get attention and can become moody at the toss of a coin, there is obviously something missing from this marriage and that is Love in all its forms. For Neve one senses that she misses any form of affection as there is nothing there even sex is non-existent in the marriage. Is the Neve’s family past being played out in their own marriage or is this just Edwyn covering for his own failures and is he trying to get Neve to just accept that that is the best she is going to get in life? Despite the gloomy scenario there are some amusing parts in the story which Neve as the narrator takes the reader on the journey with her.
There is also a sense that you get when reading First Love is that Neve is not only trying to understand herself but the life around her and how best to cope as their marriage hits the rocks one minute then the next everything is OK.. She must have looked at her life as we look at a snow globe after it has been shaken.
First Love is one of those novels that is raw and human in that it exposes what life is like behind the closed doors of some people’s lives as we are invited into Neve’s world. At times it is shattering yet Riley’s writing is dazzling as she explores human frailties and at the same time incredibly moving.
Thank you to Granta Books for the advanced review copy.
First Love by Gwendoline Riley is published by Granta Books and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
Sealskin by Su Bristow
I could not even begin to think of how many books I have read in my life and especially since I started writing book review that has affected me in one way or another there have been many through the years. In March 2014 I was about to enter hospital for heart surgery and to take my mind of the worrying time a friend drove me to the beautiful City of Exeter and to see the very first Exeter Novel Prize for 2013 being awarded. We very quietly sat and watched the local MP Ben Bradshaw award the first ever Novel Prize to Su Bristow for her hauntingly beautiful novel Sealskin. I had done my homework on the novels that had a chance of winning that afternoon. I recall saying to my good friend on the way home that I had a feeling that we would be hearing many good things about Su Bristow and Sealskin in the months that lay ahead. My only disappointment is it has taken so long and yet again to the immense credit of Karen Sullivan the brains behind Orenda Books that at last many people are now making this dream come true. I am just so delighted to have been present that day and Su Bristow deserves the success that her novel Sealskin deserves.
This has been the hardest review I have written to-date and no doubt long after it has been posted I will still be struggling to write a review that will do Su Bristow’s Sealskin the justice that is deserves. There are a number of reasons why this novel has so affected me, firstly the setting any novel that is set on the West Coast of Scotland is going to affect me for those personal reasons that I won’t go into here but when it is mixed with the poetic tale and prose of Su Bristow then it becomes something more. Sealskin deeply affected me like no other novel has in many years. Now I know that many reviewers I have spoken with have all struggled to find the right words to describe its astonishing beauty. So I will just give a brief outline of why YOU must go and buy a copy today and experience the magical story of Sealskin.
This is a story based around the old Scottish legend that is Selkies. Some will know of this legend and to some they will when they have read Sealskin. Set on a quiet West Coast fishing village, were the landscape is hard but stunning and the people are tuned into nature and have become resilient and resourceful. It is here that Donald and quiet and lonely fisherman experiences something he only believed came straight from the myth and folklore and watches a Selkie shed her skin that transforms her into a human but Donald makes a life changing mistake. For Donald and Mairhi there cannot be any undoing what has just happened. From the very beginning I transfixed by the beautiful poetic prose and the story had only just begun. My heart was sold. The real beauty of this story lies at the heart of the communities of the West Coast a part of Scotland that will be forever be a part of me it is the close knit community that comes together but for both Donald and Mairhi their relationship has an immediate impact as one or two locals clearly know something is going on and they face all manner of gossip and the prejudices. You cannot help but be taken by Mairhi she is just leads the story with her presence although she may be vulnerable she also brings a certain peace and tranquillity to the story. I was transfixed by her presence on every page. There are many characters and everyone has a part to play, we are all human and have qualities and failures and some are complex and here you will experience all this but you just cannot fail to become part of the story as you move from page to page totally transfixed.
I don’t think I have experienced the range of emotions I have gone through both reading and writing this review and since I finished reading I have not stopped thinking of Sealskin. Something about its pure beauty has got inside me and won’t leave. The setting and the story are a heady cocktail that have left me with a hangover from a book that I have not yet experienced. When a grown man tells you I shed a number of tears over this story then you know that there is something incredibly beautiful to be experienced here.
What happens to both Donald and Mairhi is something I will not reveal here as it would be remiss of me to give it away. I can now see myself on the West Coast of Scotland looking out to sea listening to the sound of the gentle waves caressing the shoreline and sat re-reading this mesmerising magical novel that has to be experienced to be believed. My message is simple. ‘Just read it for yourself and enjoy the magic and beauty’ A novel for 2017 that will not be forgotten by me. My mind goes back to March 2014 and watching Su Bristow collecting the 2013 Exeter Novel Award and I for one am so pleased I was present. I have no idea how Su Bristow is going to follow up this but I for one can only hope for more.
Thank you to Karen Sullivan for the advanced review copy.
Sealskin by Su Bristow is published by Orenda Books and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
The Sealskin Official Blog Tour Continues
Blackout by Marc Elsberg
In our busy lives it is so very easy to take everything we have at our fingertips for granted, such as electricity. We have all experienced those times when the power has gone down but soon it comes back up and life goes on. Just stop and think for a moment. Now just imagine the whole of Europe’s power supply being taken down, not by a fault or a storm but something much worse. German writer Marc Elsberg has penned the ultimate nightmare scenario thriller. In Blackout you have the realistic plot that will have you rooted to your chair to the very end.
A lot of major businesses have what they call disaster plans for an eventuality that may occur but at the time of writing this review the news feed is full of news of state sponsored or terrorist cyber-crime of trying to hack into power grids and worse, this is actually more frightening than you think when you scratch the surface and just see what could be achieved if successful. Everything we take for granted would go down in a heartbeat. Then what?
Maybe we are all guilty of taking our power supply for granted knowing that if there was a problem it would be resolved as quickly as they could. In Blackout Marc Elsberg goes to great lengths and tells us just how sophisticated these criminals are and just how easily it is to take down entire systems including Nuclear Power Plants and just imagine what would happen after, panic would ensue and chaos would follow. On a Europe wide scale this is a terrifying prospect that must worry leaders across Europe. Here in this gripping novel this is exactly what happens and how the life we take for granted just grinds to a halt. Who is behind this and what is they want? This is a conspiracy thriller that will keep you palms of hands sweating until the exciting finale. During the blackout a whole series of related events start, clean water becomes hard to find, people are freezing in the cold winters due to lack of heating day by day normal society is breaking down.
There are a lot of key characters here and as panic gains a foothold governments try their best to cover up what is really going on, meanwhile fingers are now being pointed on a country by country basis believing that this could be orchestrated by one country. Is this a lone hacker though, with one leading character Piero Manzano being blamed as part of the conspiracy theory, but is he part of this though despite his past as a leading hacker? Time is running out and panic is spreading and humans being humans in times like this think of survival at any cost. Meanwhile governments are doing everything they can to hide the truth from the public. But the longer it goes on the more the people start to fear the worst.
I really liked the way that Elsberg broke the chapters down into short character led chapters, as you begin to bring the story together and the plot thickens and the blackout spreads far and wide, can the real hackers be stopped. The whole story is worrying from the perspective of how interconnected Europe is as far as power is concerned. The author also goes into detail of how life starts to break down and how we are all vulnerable we are to health and security breaking down quickly.
Blackout is a well thought out novel that will have the reader gripped chapter by chapter and at the same time raises a number of questions on just how secure are our power supplies from cyber-attack.
The Blackout Official Blog Tour
Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan
Katie Khan has a fascination with the stars in the night sky so much so that back in 2012 she came up with the premise of the story-line and so it was Hold Back the Stars was born and now it is one of the most talked about debut novels of 2017. In Katie Khan a new literary star has really been born. This is an incredible story so beautifully woven and seamless.
The Europe as we know it today is Europia of tomorrow and this is where Hold Back the Stars it is set the Europe of the future after the World is torn apart by conflict and a new society was born but from this, the idea of young people falling in love is something that is not allowed that is for later in life. Our story begins in space two young astronauts are tumbling through space they have manged to escape their dying ship, but something is wrong and now they have only 90 minutes of air remaining and nothing else to help them. They are drifting further and further away and panic is setting. These two young lovers whose hearts have become one they have been drawn together as it was always meant to be and in a society where this is frowned on, now all seems lost. Imagine just helplessly drifting through space among the bright stars that just hang there. In space they say there are more stars than there are grains on sand on every beach on Earth.
What Katie Khan presents us is an act of sheer desperation so perfectly set in her writing and the tone, as both Cary’s and Max try everything to come up with a plan to save themselves at the same time they are looking back at their lives in moments of flashbacks. From the very start of this outstanding book I was hooked and never wanted to leave the young couple for too long. Cary’s is one amazing character she is full of life and one feisty young woman they are just a young couple with dep feelings for each other despite what the law makers think and want. It is so beautifully written I have found it difficult to pin this novel into any one genre as it crosses many of them. It is clever and also unusual but it really works and the ending well I am not giving any spoilers here but this is the only way it could have ended. You may need a handkerchief to hand. My goodness this is just so very special. It was written in the stars, but Hold Back the Stars really was written in the stars and for Katie Khan the future looks as bright as a night sky full of stars. Now you can add a new one.
Thank you to Sophie Christopher for the advanced review copy.
Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan is published by Doubleday and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison
This has been my first Corban Addison novel and it will not be the last. I have been struck by the outstanding quality of the writing of Addison in A Harvest of Thorns a novel about corporate greed at its worst within the fashion industry and how workers in Bangladesh are exploited for profit.
The story begins with a fire at a factory with tragic consequences as many people are killed trapped by the flames and acrid smoke. Among those killed is a young girl trying to escape the fire by climbing down a makeshift rope ladder sadly the rope that was tied together using the garments from the factory floor gives way and the girl falls to her death. A photographer later takes a photograph of the young girl and instantly the photograph becomes front page news around the world. But the image captures something else that will shake a large American clothing retailer ‘presto’ to the core. But one question remains why was this factory even producing their range of garments in the first place as this was not one of the factories on the list in fact it never met any of criteria in the first place.
Now it is damage limitation for Presto as they try to make sure that no damage to the company name comes from the fire. Some years later a chance for a former journalist Joshua Griswold to rebuild he shattered career when a chance tip off comes from an employee. What Griswold does with this information will be dramatic as he goes about building a court case that will if he wins have ramifications for the fashion industry on a world wide scale and would rock Presto from the shop floor to the boardroom.
This is a story rooted in fact as it is based on a true account of a factory fire in Bangladesh in 2010. At times this is a difficult read as it goes to the very core of the issue of forces labour and the appalling working conditions in the factories. It leaves many questions for the reader about certain areas of the fashion industry and their ethics. I found A Harvest of Thorns to be an important read and an important book that will open many eyes to just what does go on in this trade. If you enjoy a John Grisham style novel, then you would want to read this. Many will go with the style of writing that I found flowed from one chapter to the next. At times it can be a difficult read but at the same time it is really compelling.
Thank you to Olivia Mead for the advanced review copy.
A Harvest of Thorns by Corban Addison is published by Quercus Books and is now available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.
A Harvest of Thorns Official Blog Tour continues
Under the Almond Tree by Laura McVeigh
One of the most anticipated book releases of the year is the debut novel by Laura McVeigh called Under the Almond Tree and is a timely novel about the effects of war on people and displacement the effects on their lives and the incredible courage and bravery in their struggle to survive.
The story is narrated by 15-year-old Samar and set in war torn Afghanistan the Russians have been forced out after making the lives of people nothing short of horrific now it is the turn of the Taliban and their barbaric rule of law and Samar and her family decide they have to escape the terror that they face on a daily basis in Kabul from what was once a happy life now they face an uncertain future away from their home. To escape they board the Trans-Siberian Express and now the story really begins to unfold for our narrator Samar and her family, Samar spends her time on the train with a copy of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy she dreams of being a writer and along the journey she writes to hide the concerns and worries and documents the journey. With memories of her yellow house that was the family home in Kabul now they are fleeing, running away out of fear for their lives. But then the story starts to uncover a secret that will shock the reader. There is no turning back now and for Samar this journey is uncovering many secrets.
Samar’s enduring love for her parents and brothers and sisters is something that will endure the harrowing experiences that she has endured in her young life. Under the Almond Tree is a beautifully written debut novel that will stay long after you have finished reading. It is poignant and moving and completely unforgettable. I was left with the thought of love and hope and that these two things we must hold onto in these troubled times. As much as this is set during the 1990’s it is a story of today. Under the Almond Tree is a story that left me thinking of all refugees fleeing war at this time. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Thank you to Emma Draude for the advanced review copy.
Under the Almond Tree by Laura McVeigh is published by Two Roads on the 23rd February and is available through Waterstones, Amazon and all good bookshops.