Reading in May

I’ve been reading eight books in May, and have finished reading six of them, but only reviewed four of them:

  1. The Butterfly Room by Lucinda Riley 4* –  a family saga spanning generations  revealing the dark secret hidden behind the locked door of the Butterfly Room
  2. Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin 5* – not about his mother, but about him and his model and mistress, Maud Franklin
  3. Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings 3* – the basis for the TV series Killing Eve 
  4. The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal 5* –  the story of Iris who dreamed of being an artist and her involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites

The other two books I finished are:

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which I didn’t enjoy and I’m just writing a few notes here about it. It won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and was selected by The Sunday Times as one of the top page-turners of summer 2017, so I’m in the minority because I thought it was boring and tedious. The plot is simple – a plane crashes into the sea after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard, just two people survive and the mystery is why did the plane crash and who was responsible. The main part of the book is made up of the long backstories of the people on the plane. It’s not gripping or thrilling and definitely not a page-turner. 1*

However I thoroughly enjoyed The Ruin Dervla McTiernan’s debut novel and I’ll be writing more about it in the next few days. Now this is a page-turner, about a current murder linked to a cold case. It’s complex and compelling reading as DI Cormac Reilly unravels a web of secrets. 4*

I’m still reading two books:

D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, from his childhood in Nottinghamshire to his death at the age of 44. I’m reading this slowly and it will be some time before I finish it. An ‘outsider’, he always felt he didn’t fit in or belong either with his family or his work colleagues or the literary elite of the times.

The other book I’ve been reading is Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck, my Classics Club Spin book that I was hoping to finish by the end of May. I’ve only read half of it so far. It’s a follow up to Cannery Row, with some of the same characters and I’m enjoying its humour and view of life in Monterey in the 1950s.

And now it’s June! I’ll be concentrating on reading the books I’ve listed for the 20 Books of Summer challenge – and hoping I won’t be distracted by too many other books!

Six Degrees of Separation: from Murmur to Alan Turing: The Enigma

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

Murmur

This month the chain begins with a book I haven’t read or heard of before, Murmur by Will Eaves. This is the summary from Amazon: Taking its cue from the arrest and legally-enforced chemical castration of Turing, Eaves fictionalises the devastating period before the mathematician’s death in an extraordinary contemplation of consciousness.

Murmur has won several prizes including the 2019 Wellcome Book Prize, an annual award, open to new works of fiction or non-fiction. To be eligible for entry, a book should have a central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness.

I checked back to see if I had read any of the earlier  Wellcome Book prize winners. I had to go back to 2010 when The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot was the winning book. I read this in April and thought it was excellent. Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951. The cancer cells taken from her tumour were cultured and became known as HeLa cells which have formed the basis for medical research and drug development ever since.

The Quarry by Iain Banks is a novel about Guy, a man dying from cancer. He lives in a house that is gradually falling to pieces, situated on the edge of a quarry in the Pennines..Feeling his death is imminent, Guy gathers around him his oldest friends as they reminisce about their time as film students and search through the house for a video tape they had made that could ruin all of their lives if it became public.  It’s the last book Iain Banks wrote – whilst writing it he, himself, was diagnosed with cancer.

Another house in ruins is the setting for the opening of The Ruin, Dervla McTiernan’s debut novel. DI Cormac Reilly has left his high-flying Dublin career to return to Galway, where he is confronted with a case that has haunted him for twenty years. As a young constable he was called to a decrepit country house where he found two silent, neglected children and their mother lying dead upstairs.

Another debut novel is Everything But the Truth by Gillian McAllister set in Newcastle and Oban. This is a thriller about lies, secrets and relationships; about how we get to know people and learn to trust them.

Also set partially in Newcastle is Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves. It begins ten days before Christmas, as the Newcastle Metro is packed with shoppers, babies screaming, office workers merry after pre-Christmas parties where an old lady, Margaret Krukowski, is found fatally stabbed. This book was adapted for TV adaptation, but with many changes from the original.

Another adaptation is the film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley about Alan Turing as he tries to crack the German Enigma code.  It’s an adaptation of the book Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges. In 1952 Turing’s homosexuality rendered him a criminal and he was subjected to humiliating treatment. In 1954, aged 41, Alan Turing took his own life – thus linking back to Murmur.

I’ve started and ended with books about Alan Turing, linked by books that have won the Wellcome Book Prize, books about cancer, set in ruined houses, debut novels, books set in Newcastle and books that have been adapted for TV and film.

The books are mostly crime fiction, all of which I’ve read. Although I haven’t read Andrew Hodges’ book I have seen the film – which is excellent!

Next month (July 6, 2019), the chain will begin with the children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

WWW Wednesday: 22 May 2019

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WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


Currently reading: Three books,  D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen, Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck and The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal.

I’ve made more progress with D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider. It’s a thorough and detailed account of his life and I’ve just got up to 1912 when he first met Frieda Weekley, the wife of Ernest Weekley, a Nottingham University professor of modern languages. Lawrence had finished writing ‘Paul Morel‘ (Sons and Lovers) and had needing a break he decided to travel – to go to Germany. He got in touch with Weekley to ask for his advice.

Sweet Thursday is my Classics Club spin book to read by 31 May. So far I’ve only read a few chapters. This is a follow on from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row which I loved. Set after the Second World War in Monterey, on the California Coast, Sweet Thursday is what they call the day after Lousy Wednesday, which is one of those days that’s just naturally bad.

I’ve included The Doll Factory in my 20 Books of Summer challenge and I made the mistake of looking at it and before I knew it I’d read 20%. It really is compelling reading for me – historical fiction set in London beginning in 1850 as the Grand Exhibition is being built in Hyde Park. Twin sisters Iris and Rose paint dolls for a living but Iris dreams of a life as an artist. This is the period when the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood are making their mark in the art world.

Recently finished Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings, the basis for the BAFTA-winning Killing Eve TV series. I enjoyed this but not as much as the TV version. See my review here.

Codename Villanelle

My next book could be:

As usual I’m not at all sure what it could be, but after reading Codename Villanelle I’ve got my eye on No Tomorrow by Luke Jennings, which continues the story.

No tomorrow

Blurb (Amazon):

In a hotel room in Venice, where she’s just completed a routine assassination, Villanelle receives a late-night call.

Eve Polastri has discovered that a senior MI5 officer is in the pay of the Twelve, and is about to debrief him. As Eve interrogates her subject, desperately trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, Villanelle moves in for the kill.

The duel between the two women intensifies, as does their mutual obsession, and when the action moves from the high passes of the Tyrol to the heart of Russia, Eve finally begins to unwrap the enigma of her adversary’s true identity.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

WWW Wednesday: 15 May 2019

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WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?


Currently reading: Two books,  D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider by John Worthen and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley.

Lawrence Worthen001

I’ve made some progress with D H Lawrence: the Life of an Outsider. His mother Lydia is seriously ill with cancer and Lawrence has started to write a novel to include her girlhood, and her marriage moving on to his own upbringing. By October 1910 he was calling the book ‘Paul Morel‘ – which later became ‘Sons and Lovers.’ It will take me several weeks (at least) before I finish the book as I’m reading short sections each day.

Before the Fall won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel.

Before the Fall

Description:

THE RICH ARE DIFFERENT. BUT FATE IS BLIND.

A private jet plunges into the sea.

The only survivors are down-on his luck artist Scott Burroughs and JJ Bateman, the four year old son of a super-rich TV executive.

For saving the boy, Scott is suddenly a hero.

And then, as the official investigation is rapidly overtaken by a media frenzy, it seems he may also be a villain.

Why was he on the plane in the first place, and why did it crash?

I’ve read 72% of this book so far. It begins well, but then it becomes rather disjointed, as it relates each character’s back story in some detail. So any suspense that the opening had built up is fading as I read about each person’s life story up to the time they entered the plane. But with nearly a quarter of the book left to read I’m hoping the tension will rise.

Recently finished:

Mrs Whistler

Mrs Whistler by Matthew Pamplin, a novel is based on the life of the artist, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and his muse Maud Franklin, covering the years from 1876 to 1880. I loved this book and am in the middle of writing a post about it  – I may finish it today, or tomorrow …

My next book could be:

It could be Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings, the basis for the BAFTA-winning Killing Eve TV series. I’ve had this book for a while – after I watched Killing Eve, which I loved, and it seems a good time to read it now. The second series began on 7th April 2019 on BBC America and all I know so far is that it will be shown here in the UK – soon!

Codename Villanelle

She is the perfect assassin.

A Russian orphan, saved from the death penalty for the brutal revenge she took on her gangster father’s killers.

Ruthlessly trained. Given a new life. New names, new faces – whichever fits.

Her paymasters call themselves The Twelve. But she knows nothing of them. Konstantin is the man who saved her, and the one she answers to.

She is Villanelle. Without conscience. Without guilt. Without weakness.

Eve Polastri is the woman who hunts her. MI5, until one error of judgment costs her everything.

Then stopping a ruthless assassin becomes more than her job. It becomes personal.

Originally published as ebook singles: Codename Villanelle, Hollowpoint, Shanghai and Odessa.

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Immortal life of HL

Pan|First Paperback Edition edition (1 Jan. 2011)|431 pages|5*

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an outstanding book! It took her more than ten years to research and write and has won numerous awards and been made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks, Renee Elise Goldsberry as Henrietta Lacks, and Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot.

I found it all fascinating, but harrowing to read in parts, from all the details of Henrietta’s life, how she was treated for cervical cancer in 1951, when she was just 30, to her death nine months later.  During her diagnosis and surgery cancer cells taken from her tumour were cultured and amazingly those cells multiplied, doubling every twenty four hours. They became known as HeLa cells (pronounced hee-lah) and have formed the basis for much medical research and drug development ever since. It is also a history of the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and considers the ethical issues around ownership of her cells and the distress, anger and confusion this caused her family. It raises many issues not just regarding ethics, but also regarding science, race and class.

Cancer treatment in 1951 with radium was brutal, but what made it worse was that Henrietta was a black woman, living in near-poverty in Baltimore. Black oral history from at least the 1800s tells of kidnapping black people for research and there were disturbing truths behind the stories – doctors did test drugs on slaves and carried out operations to develop surgical techniques. In 1951 Henrietta was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, a hospital built for the benefit of Baltimore’s poor, but black residents suspected it had been ‘built in a poor black neighborhood  for the benefit of scientists – to give them easy access to potential research subjects.’ (page 190)

The Lacks family were poor and they misunderstood what was happening. They became fearful and distressed, and some of them were aggressive when they realised with horror that Henrietta still lived on in a way they couldn’t understand. They had no health insurance and received no financial benefit from the research done on the HeLa cells. Rebecca Skloot’s investigation reveals the mental anguish they went through and her account is so very moving. In particular her times with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah are heart breaking as she records the terrible struggles Deborah had to overcome. It was only years later that Deborah understood that it was her mother’s cancer cells that were still ‘alive’ and not her own normal cells.

‘So we don’t have the thing that made her cells grow forever?’ Deborah asked. Christoph shook his head. ‘Now you tell me after all these years!’ Deborah yelled. ‘Thank God, cause I was wonderin.’

She pointed at a cell on the screen that looked longer than the others. ‘This one is cancer, right? And the rest are her normal ones?’

‘Actually, HeLa is all just cancer,’ Christoph said.

‘Wait a minute,’ she said,’you mean none of our mother’s regular cells still livin? Just her cancer cells?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Oh! See, and all this time I thought my mother regular cells still livin!’ (page 302)

Rebecca Skloot based her book on an impressive amount of research  – archival documents, scientific and historical research, including legal documents and medical records. She also used Deborah’s personal journals as well as conducting more than a thousand hours of interviews with Henrietta’s family and friends, and lawyers, ethicists, scientists and journalists who have written about the Lacks family.

This is not a dry scientific account – although there is a lot of scientific detail in the book (not all of which I’m sure I fully understood). It is a remarkable and personal record of the Lacks family that comes to life through dialogue, by adopting the language with which each person spoke and wrote. She explains that where she wrote in the first person using Deborah’s voice she was quoting what she said, only edited for length and occasionally clarity. It is brilliantly written, giving me much to think over – one of the most moving books of non-fiction I’ve read!

 

First Chapter First Paragraph: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Every Tuesday First Chapter, First Paragraph/Intros is hosted by Vicky of I’d Rather Be at the Beach sharing the first paragraph or two of a book she’s reading or plans to read soon.

This week I’m featuring The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. This is one of the books that I’m currently reading.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

 

Prologue

The Woman in the Photograph

There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep read. It’s the late 1940s and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine. Beneath the photo, a caption says her name is “Henrietta Lacks, Helen Lane or Helen Larson.”

Blurb (Amazon)

Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. Born a poor black tobacco farmer, her cancer cells – taken without her knowledge – became a multimillion-dollar industry and one of the most important tools in medicine. Yet Henrietta’s family did not learn of her ‘immortality’ until more than twenty years after her death, with devastating consequences . . .

Rebecca Skloot’s fascinating account is the story of the life, and afterlife, of one woman who changed the medical world forever. Balancing the beauty and drama of scientific discovery with dark questions about who owns the stuff our bodies are made of, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an extraordinary journey in search of the soul and story of a real woman, whose cells live on today in all four corners of the world.

~~~

So far, I’ve read 34% and I am thoroughly enjoying this book. It tells Henrietta’s life story, explains the details of her cancer, and the medical details of how her cells were grown, how they have stayed alive and multiplied. It also considers the ethical issues around ownership of her cells, racism and the distress, anger and confusion this caused her family.

I know ‘amazing’ is such an over used word – but this book really is amazing!

If you’ve read it I’d love to know what you thought of it. If you haven’t, does it tempt you too?

Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

The topic for Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) is Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction): 

Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

It doesn’t matter to me whether a nonfiction book reads like a novel, although I think those that do read like novels are easier to read, even though they are packed full of details and information. It does depend on the topic though and looking through the nonfiction I’ve read in recent years I see that most of the ones that read like fiction are either autobiographies or biographies.

Biographies are written using a mass of material gathered from various sources and are a result of selection – choosing what to include and what to leave out, how to interpret the gaps in the material available. Claire Tomalin in the foreword to her biography of Dora Jordan writes that ‘History – and biography, which is a branch of history is always a matter of choice and control. The writer or editor decides what is history and what is not.

Likeness must be there in a biography, whether it is more like history or fiction. I like historical fiction and, to a certain extent, fictionalised biography but I like to know what is fact and what is not. But then facts are open to interpretation – biographies are given a story-like shape  but still need to be accurate.

Mrs. Jordan's Profession: The Actress and the PrinceSisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels

Mrs Jordan’s Profession: The Story of a Great Actress and a King, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dora Jordan. It is both well researched and well written making it easy to read despite being packed with information, brilliantly bringing the late 18th and early 19th centuries to life as she tells the story of Dora and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV. Dora was an actress, known as ‘Mrs Jordan’, although there was never a Mr Jordan. She made her stage debut in 1777 at the age of 15 and her first Drury Lane appearance in 1785. She met William, the Duke of Clarence (later William IV) and she became his mistress in 1790.

Another example of a biography that reads like fiction is Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels by Janet Soskice. As I was reading I remember thinking that if this were a novel I would think it was a most unlikely story. It tells the story of twin sisters in the latter half of the nineteenth century, who travelled to St Catherine’s Monastery at Mount Sinai where they discovered one of the earliest copies of the Gospels written in ancient Syriac. They also went to Jerusalem and beyond crossing the desert on camel or walking miles on foot.

An AutobiographyCider With Rosie

Then there are autobiographies. These can be very different depending on how much the author wants to reveal about themselves. I loved Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography, written in such an easy style that it was as though I was listening to her talking. It took her fifteen years to write and is filled with her thoughts and reflections as well as telling the story of her life. But although she wrote about her childhood, teenage years, friends and family, her marriage to Archibald Christie and their divorce, about her travels around the world, the two world wars, her interest and involvement with archaeology and her marriage to Max Mallowan, she didn’t write about her disappearance in 1926.

A very different autobiography is Laurie Lee’s autobiography Cider With RosieIt is a beautiful book, full of wonderful word pictures of life in a remote Cotswold village at the beginning of the twentieth century. Laurie Lee was also a poet and this book reads like a prose poem throughout. Cider with Rosie covers his childhood years and it is absolutely fascinating. He was born in Stroud and moved to Slad when he was three in 1917. His love for his mother permeates the book (his father had left his wife with seven young children).

I’ve also read two more of Laurie Lee’s books – As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), which is about his life after he left his home in Slad, and A Rose for Winter (1955), which is a record of his travels in Andalusia 15 years after he first went there. Again in these books he writes vivid, lyrical prose with beautiful descriptions of the countryside, the scorching heat, the poverty and the people, It’s not just the scenery he captures, but also the atmosphere, the splendour and squalor, and the desperation and also the love and enthusiasm for life.

But are these books fiction? There are doubts that Lee falsified and embellished his involvement in the Spanish Civil War in A Moment of War (which I haven’t read). However, his widow denied this. In an interview recorded in The New York Times, 24 February 1985, Lee, talking about Cider With Rosie said  “… it is not so much about me as about the world that I observed from my earliest years. It was a world that I wanted to record because it was such a miracle visitation to me. I wanted to communicate what I had seen, so that others could see it.”

It’s a fascinating topic – and I’m looking forward to seeing what other readers think? do let me know.