Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Direct Red

So, taking a break from the slog of Wolf Hall (more on that later), I decided to pick up Gabriel Weston's Direct Red.
It was a quick read - took me less than 24 hours to finish - and was somewhat unsatisfying. Partly, I think this was my problem, not the book's. Another non-fiction doctor book (my partner keeps being given them for Christmas), this one follows various incidents in the life of Ms Weston, a surgeon. And I'm afraid, I just didn't get on with Ms Weston. I don't know if it's the fact of her being a surgeon (an odd, and strangely blase bunch, even by doctor standards, I am told) or a woman in a man's world, but her writing style is quite cold and clinical, as if she's scared to be human. She's a surgeon, a person who cuts others up for a living, and you can never escape that surgical sterility. While she does occasionally show flashes of care or sympathy, if you were expecting a gentle bedside manner throughout, you're in for a dissapointment.

There is an obvious comparison to be drawn with Max Pemberton* - who comes across as much less "together" (by which I don't mean less competent, just less experienced) but that out-of-his-depth-ness makes him a lot easier to relate to. Ms Weston on the other hand, while there is a strange kind of poetry to the way she writes, always seems so very detached from everything, even her own emotions.

I was also rather uncomfortable with the book from a feminist perspective. Not wishing to spoil the ending; but it left me rather unsatisfied, and wondering if there weren't more (societal) pressures at work in the final scenario than were admitted to in the text, but I don't want to put words into the author's mouth. The final chapter also seemed at odds with what we had seen before of the character growing throughout the book.

It's a much more grown-up book than either of the Pemberton offerings, and there is a strange sort of beauty in the technical wording and the flash of surgical implements, it's a very cold kind of beauty, like blood on snow. If you're at all interested in life in hospitals, I would really suggest reading Pemberton's books first.

*Author of Trust Me, I'm a (junior) doctor, and Where does it hurt? - see previous post.

Monday, 17 January 2011


Starting the New Year off, I am half-way through a favourite that is too new still to be old, but I confidently predict that it’s only a matter of time. I’m re-reading the Harry Potter series. I know, I know, so kill me, but I like kid-lit. It’s far more interesting than some of the stuff that’s on offer for grown ups – it deals with life-and-death mysteries of the cosmos, not does-my-bum-look-big-in-this dating crap[1], and there is a blessed lack of prejudice against the Spec Fic genres. I am sure I will cover the whole SF issue/ kid-lit issue at another date, but this is a re-read, so let’s move on...

In at number 2 is another re-read. Pratchett’s Going Postal / Making Money duo. I love Pratchett, it has to be said, and I think that his forays here into chapters is an interesting structural change, and probably one that helps the pacing of the novels. But another re-read here, nothing particularly new to say.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is the first new book I’ve read this year. It’s somewhat caustic in tone, and that added to the fact that it’s essentially a well written polemic, means that I doubt Goldacre is going to be making any converts soon. He’s preaching to the choir with this one, which I think is a shame. He makes some very good points about how media scares and shoddy journalism (which, as a journalist himself he acknowledges is more the fault of the gatekeepers and editors than the actual jobbing writers themselves) as well as “selective reporting” of studies and statistics by both big Pharma and Homeopathy advocates presents a misleading, if not dangerous world-view to the lay-person. He manages to avoid being patronising to his readers; though he does skirt that line very closely at times, and I wouldn’t want to read this coming from the opposite point of view. Obviously this is a subject that Goldacre cares passionately about, and while it’s always better to read something by a passionate author than by an apathetic one, his passion can sometimes spill over into being confrontational. Worth a read, but brace yourself...

Continuing with the science non-fiction, we have Max Permberton’s Trust me, I’m a (junior) Doctor. It reads like my SO’s diary from last year. Written in 2007, it’s still a scathingly accurate portrayal of what is now called the F1 (foundation 1) year – i.e. the first one after you finish at university – as a doctor in an inner city hospital. If you want to know what’s wrong with the NHS, and why it’s still worth supporting, read this. You will never complain that doctors are paid too much again.

First fiction book of the year! After a trip to Waterstones, where we each come back laden down with books, I finally get round to reading some Scarlett Thomas, and I start with PopCo. It’s a book about cryptography, marketing, toys, the tricks of creative business, advertising, teenage girls, and treasure hunting. It’s a good book, that I can say. Well written, well paced, with interesting characters (and a female protagonist), a mystery that will unravel slowly and deliciously, and a few very good and interesting things to say about business, brand identity, and, strangely, feminism for teens. However, there were two things that just grated; firstly, after reading the Goldacre just recently, I could not stomach the main character’s obsession with homeopathy. It may just be really bad timing, but it was painfully immersion breaking, and put me right off. Secondly, the conclusion felt rushed and unsatisfying. I can’t say too much without spoiling the mystery, but I was distinctly underwhelmed. Not because it left things without answers, but more because it left things without questions. The flashbacks and forays into the past make for a much more interesting mystery, overall. I shall certainly be reading more Thomas, but perhaps not for a while.

Where does it hurt?, another Pemberton offering is just as insightful and honest as the first, this time dealing with a community outreach project. It’s not so much a rip-the-lid-off exposé, but it might just change the way you see people; specifically the dispossessed. Pemberton’s work with the homeless, the drug addicts, the A&E drunks, is handled sensitively and thoughtfully, portraying a broken system, but not always broken people. It’s a little bleaker than the previous, but again, it’s an important kind of a book to read.

Phillipa Gregory’s Red Queen has been sitting on my bookshelf since the day it came out, and I’m ashamed it’s taken me this long to get round to reading it. It’s the story of Margaret Beaufort – Henry VII’s mother – and it’s as gripping, well written and un-put-downable as any of Gregory’s oeuvre. The best thing about her, as a writer, is that she lets history do the work for her. The stories and characters she writes about are left to shine through without too much embellishment, save that which makes a better story. There is, obviously, a certain amount of conjecture and speculation, but the way she writes, it’s so hard to tell. She manages to create convincing and importantly consistent portrayals of historical characters, by telling their stories simply, and with the only frills being on petticoats. I enjoyed Red Queen so much, I had to go back and re-read its predecessor, White Queen.

[1] Not counting fic aimed at the Teen Girl demographic. Chic Lit is only a grown up version of this, only without the former’s sole redeeming feature of preparing girls for their first kiss/period/bra/forays into romance and social life etc.


Hi, I'm Alex.
I'm also known in real life and around the internet as AJ, Galactic Teabag and Sesquepadalia.
24 years old, I'm a Book freak, bit of a geek, Feminist and aspiring author.
Currently at large in the North of England with my SO and the dream of a cat.

This blog: is going to (hopefully) encompass a year of my life, detailing, month by month, what I'm reading, what I'm reading again, and whether or not I think it's any good.
It's going to be confined to my personal reading - I also do the occasional review up at Sabotage, and I'll leave the stuff I read for that out of this list - but prose, poetry, fiction, non-fiction, if I read it, it's going up on here, and I'm giving it a paragraph or so of review.

This is an experiment, so please bear with me. Any comments and feedback, or discussions of what I'm reading would be appreciated.

And with that, roll on the New Year...