Author Archives: Siobhan

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Starless Sea Book Cover with photograph of embossed pages with bee key and sword motif

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains and entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

There’s nothing hugely new about a novel in which a boy finds a book and it leads to a world of adventure. A story in which a boy finds a book which leads to an unknown enemy hunting them to retrieve the book isn’t hugely new either, Carlos Ruiz Zafon did this with The Shadow of the Wind. But believe me when I say The Starless Sea is far from basic. It’s so extra it’s meta.

A moibus strip of stories, The Starless Sea reads like a love letter to storytelling, video games and fan culture. An adventurous storytelling adventure which spans from myth to modern day and back again, watching entire empires rise and fall in the liminal spaces occupied by our book hangovers. This is the heartsong of the readers.

 “A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”

It’s rare that I want to start a book straight away after finishing but I could so easily have done that with The Starless Sea, and I would have enjoyed it just as much, appreciating how the puzzle fits together, catching the references that I glossed over chasing the plot, becoming an acolyte to Morgestern’s storytelling.

There must be a more elegant word than book hangover (and my guess would be it exists in German or Japanese because they have the best words for these intangible concepts) to describe the feeling of a book that stays with you, that you want to revisit from scratch and occupy all over again. What Erin Morgenstern has done in this novel is effectively distill that essence and used it to paint a cast of characters who are both slaves to the story and causes of book hangovers in their own right.

Given the book’s fondness for cocktails, I’d love to try a starless sea if anyone mixes one up. Otherwise, I’ll take the bees knees.

 

Spoilers for The Starless Sea Below

“And there are always those who would watch Alexandria burn.

There always have been. There always will be.”

Yeah, okay, she’s technically the villain of the piece but you can’t really blame Allegra for wanting to protect the harbour and the starless sea can you? She chose the wrong path but I bet many a booklover would have done.

Who else thought Mirabel had gone rogue there? I have to admit that I did and the ice sculpture briefly seemed apt. As an act of penance, I’m going to have to dye my hair pink and dress like Max from Where the Wild Things Are. It’s happening and I’m not sure I can wait until World Book Day.

Eleanor and Simon do find each other at the end! That’s nice, the poor kids had a rough deal. Loose ends have to be tied up but the book doesn’t labour the point and I like that.

But who killed the Owl King this time? Or did he not have to die this time? Was that not the point of the sword after all?

I love Madam Love Rawlins, love, trust and acceptance. Those are mothering goals.

How horrific is the idea of drowning in honey? What kind of mind comes up with that?! It reminded me of one of the Plantagenets asking to be executed by drowning in a barrel of wine. It probably sounded like a good way to go until he actually had to go through with it.

I need a Kat Hawkins in my life and on my WhatsApp. But not as much as I need a kitchen.

What are the cats about?

Is anyone else tempted to make the room with the dolls house and the paper world? It can’t just be me.

Again, I love you Kitchen.

This is morbid perhaps, but I loved the idea of people being mummified shrouded in the stories of who they were. It was a really poignant moment for me.

The bees say that “she” always sends them a key to end the story. And Zachary is the key this time. Is she the Sculptor? How many stories have there been? Is this story, and this puzzle, just one of many? But if the sculptor is a godlike figure telling the story of Zachary, Mirabel, Dorian, The Keeper… what universe is she existing in? And who did she begin sculpting the stories out of raindrops for.

Come to that, how does time work? Who wrote the story of Zachary finding the door down in a book that was published before Mirabel was born so that Eleanor was able to read it?

Is Kat now the sculptor of a new story? She’s the world builder of the piece with avant garde theatre and virtual reality fusions. Is she there to build the new harbour? I get the feeling there will always be a new harbour, the egg cracks and a new story emerges.

Have you read it? I’m desperate to hear what other people think of it all.

 

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

Cover image of Sharon Olds Stags Leap anthology of poems about her divorce published by Cape PoetryReading Stag’s Leap is an uncomfortable sensation. At times, you feel like you are reading a stranger’s diary, section by section chronicling the breakdown of their marriage and aftermath of their divorce. Minutely observing the aftermath winter, spring, summer, fall… years later. Should you be reading it? This raw heartache?

At times, it’s more than that even. As you come to see slivers of yourself in the minutiae of the poet’s remembrances, there’s a gut punch as you recognise aspects of your own life and relationship and for a moment, despite the specificity, you forget that you are reading about Sharon Old’s heartbreak and begin to own it yourself. You are forced into something somewhere beyond empathy. The hidden chocolate bars of Discandied, the hidden tensions of Attempted Banquet create a hysteric feeling that something might be hiding in your own life, that a relationship so well-observed, so scrutinized by a seer poet, could hide a secret that drives two people apart after a life together.

Stag’s Leap is brilliant, of course, but oh so brave. To expose, surely, your utmost vulnerabilities – at times angry, at times disbelieving- to pin down your heartbreak so clinically, like a butterfly collector, and display those emotions and thoughts for all the world to marvel at.

The whole collection is a must read, but the poems that called out to me were Tiny Siren, for the cinematic melodrama of the moment described; To Our Miscarried One Age 30 Now, for the obvious overidentification that poem provoked; and finally The Healers. There’s a line at the end of The Healers that suggests that the poet’s husband had been uncomfortable with her career, “he did not feel happy when words/ were called for, and I stood”. It would be wrong to judge a relationship or a person based on a sequence of poems, but it did make me wonder what Sharon Old’s ex-husband must have thought of becoming the inspiration and subject of a T.S. Eliot Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry given the implication of The Healers.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Did anyone else see that viral video of Rutger Bregman at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum meeting? I expect that I’m not the only person who wanted to high-five him after he told a few billionaires that they needed to pay their taxes and quite their bullshit philanthropy schemes. It didn’t go down well apparently…

The Davos elite may not have liked it, but the viral video has made Bregman this week’s folk hero and has raised the public profile of Bregman, who was already a rising star in academia. On the back of the Davos video, and articles I later read, I bought Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There to see what else he had to say about the state of the world.

If, like me, you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety about the state of the world, Utopia for Realists is in some ways very reassuring. It highlights that (as long as you don’t think about rapidly impending climate catastrophe) the world is better for humans than it’s ever been before. In the West at least, we are effectively living in what your average Medieval peasant would have considered to be a utopia. But, Bregman argues, our progress has stagnated and we need to return to utopian thinking to consider the betterment of all of mankind, with the best minds applying their minds to the problem of how to make life better for all in an increasingly unequal society. He quotes Bertrand Russell saying,

“It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”

For Bregman, we’re lacking a mighty dose of imagination, funneling our best minds into sectors like finance where they move money around, contributing very little to the betterment of society in pursuit of growing the GDP- a useful measurement of a nation’s power at wartime, but a poor barometer of social welfare. Social dysfunction improves under GDP, but for Bregman it’s no great coincidence that the US which has the highest GDP has the highest number of social problems. The things that we would see as social progress, such as cheaper life improving technology, causes the GDP to shrink. Nurses, teachers and social workers who actively contribute to the improvement of society don’t rate highly in terms of GDP. The yardstick our politicians use to measure a country’s wellbeing and progress is not fit for purpose.

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman sets out his vision for how we might come closer to a more equal society which would be more like a utopia for everyone: a universal basic income, shorter working week and, radically, open borders. His academic argument for this is strong, but I’d argue that he makes a strong moral argument as well. When the mortality rate for Somalian toddlers is higher than that of frontline US soldiers in the American Civil War, Second World War or the Vietnam War then there’s something seriously wrong with the world and it’s time that lots was done to fix this on a global scale.

This is one of those books that I’m going to insist that everyone should read, and I don’t do that often with non-fiction, so add it to your TBR pile now.

 

 

January 2019 Reading Round Up

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

Am I Ugly? by Michelle Elman

Utopia for Realists and How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman

There was a time when four books in a month wouldn’t have seemed like very much, but these days I’m happy if I manage to read and review a book a week. With age comes realism I guess, on which, I’ve yet to write a review of Utopia for Realists, but I thought it was brilliant and will link a review here when I get a chance.

 

Am I Ugly? by Michelle Elman

I don’t normally review non-fiction that I haven’t chosen for myself, but when I had a query as to whether I’d be interested in reviewing Am I Ugly?, a memoir from Michelle Elman, a body positive influencer who goes by the handle @scarrednotscared on Instagram, I signed up because I’ve got a few scars of my own and I wanted to see how Michelle’s experience related to my own.

I was nine when I was run over and the accident left me with a fractured skull, broken nose, a badly broken leg and, the jewel in the crown, a full thickness degloving crush injury to my left foot. If you don’t know what that is, don’t google it. I will not accept responsibility for any damage caused to keyboards by you losing your breakfast, regardless of how long it’s been since you ate it. So, in short, a life time of experience with some none too subtle scars and a few prolonged hospital stays.

Michelle Elman’s scarring is a result of multiple surgeries to treat hydrocephalus, and the complications that stemmed from earlier surgeries. Her memoir starts with an account of her health rapidly deteriorating at boarding school and the emergency surgeries that soon followed. While the memoir is billed as an account of one woman’s journey to body positivity, and while I’m sure that it was intended as such, for me, the book wasn’t really about the scars as a profound childhood trauma that the author was left to manage without any sort of adequate support. I’d really recommend it to anyone trying to understand how a child might experience a long hospital stay and traumatic illness.

Elman has changed a lot of names in the book, including the name of her school (which can be viewed on her LinkedIn profile so isn’t a hugely effective smoke screen) presumably for legal reasons in light of the allegations she makes about her teacher’s failure to safeguard her during her illness and the diet that her house mistress puts her on. Basically, if you were toying with the idea of spending £15,000 per term to outsource your child’s education and wellbeing to an external agency, then this would put you off.

The names that she can’t change, however, are those of her parents, and it does leave you wondering what they were thinking sending a young child with such a dangerous condition to boarding school without proper oversight. Rather than rush her immediately to a hospital when realising how ill her daughter has become at boarding school in the UK, her mother makes her feign wellness to fly to a hospital in LA which has previously treated her “because they have her notes”, risking her daughter’s health on the outbound flight. Following a series of surgeries in the US, she is then in hospital in an intensive care unit where she receives limited psychological support and the medical professionals discuss her condition in front of her in a way that seems designed to increase trauma. As soon as she is well enough, she’s shipped off back to boarding school in the UK, where her peer group has dispersed, finding herself isolated from her family who are in Hong Kong, without friends, and mistrustful of the teachers who have previously neglected her wellbeing.

Once back at boarding school, the author finds herself gaining weight from her inactivity while in hospital and is soon locked in a cycle of feeling awful about her scars and her weight, wondering whether she will ever be able to have a relationship with a man because of the scars. This all comes to a head at university, where she is forced to confront that she is still suffering from the trauma of her ICU stay in America. And it’s hardly surprising. I really felt for the poor girl. To go through all of that in a secure and supportive environment is hard enough…

I think a lot of how my recovery post-accident was dealt with made a big difference to our experiences and possibly our various perceptions of our scarring. I was carted off to a psychologist to talk about my PTSD pretty much as soon as I was out of hospital, suffering nightmares and squeaking in distress every time I was taken across a road (bit of a low point that).

I don’t ever recall feeling especially self-conscious about mine, my frustration with my foot has always been the ongoing pain that it causes and the things that it’s stopped me doing. If I had the option of having my scars disappear, I’d probably keep them because they are a big part of who I am and I probably wouldn’t feel right without them (the underlying bone issues and my ongoing fear of cars though, they can f*** right off…).

What I do relate to though is the being told how brave you must be (as if there was a choice but to cope as best you can?) and the expectation that this sets up that you will keep being brave. And that this becomes a role that you have to play. I remember after one of my surgeries the nurse coming to see if I needed painkillers and still feeling okay because the local anaesthetic was still working and my grandmother telling me that it was okay to ask for the painkillers if I needed them, saying, “You don’t have to be brave.” And I fell to pieces, because it upset this whole identity that had been constructed for me in the hospital about being a “brave girl” and a “good patient”. It’s been interesting to see about how Michelle went on to experiment with different kinds of therapy to address her PTSD, and that is something I’d like to learn more about as I’m vaguely aware that’s a journey that I’m still on.

I understand that this is intended as a book about physical scars and the bravery that it’s taken to embrace those, but for me, what’s impressive about this book is the emotional and psychological scars that the author has addressed and the strength that it takes to confront those so publicly. Michelle is still so young, so to tackle the issue of undiagnosed PTSD head on is a brave move, and will hopefully raise awareness for the carers of other young people in similar situations.

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

On a warm summer’s evening in 1881, a beautiful young woman is murdered in front of her fiance at her engagement party in full view of fifty guests. Her killer escapes, but her murder sets in motion a chain of events which begin to uncover a dark secret. When legal clerk William Lamb finds his comfortable life ripped away from him by his mentor’s violent suicide, his world begins to crumble as he is forced to confront why an ordinary man like himself has suddenly become the focus of a sinister group with links to three of the world’s major super powers.

On paper, The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans has hints of everything that should make a good mystery novel. A shocking and inexplicable murder; mysterious artefacts with a long and improbable history; a character on a journey of self-discovery; criminals with their hearts in the right places; the great and good of society engaged in terrible deeds; a mess of strong female characters…

But for me, while the plot was strong and on the whole well-paced this novel fell far short of its promise. It felt like a story board where characters were moved through set pieces which had been lifted from a selection box of plot ideas then slotted into a novel. So often, the characters’ actions seemed completely at odds with their characterisation at this point that it left me unable to understand what would make them act in the way they did.

Why would a ruthlessly pragmatic woman focused only on her own survival try to rescue an elderly man that she doesn’t know from a situation that she can’t hope to escape?

Why would a wiley and discreet detective spill the details of a secret meeting in a moment of offhanded unguardedness to a journalist friend when he has so successfully refused to divulge any information to him before?

Why would an elite group with unlimited wealth and power allow themselves to be thrown into chaos by one lone drip, when they have the police in their pockets and they have enough circumstantial evidence to bring him down?

Why would the meticulously controlled Obediah Pincott just let everyone go on a whim?

There were just so many plot holes when a bit more finesse at characterisation would have tightened all of this up. The character of Savannah Shelton was the most obvious problem here. With only the vaguest hints of where she’s come from, and that she’s on the run, wanted for murder, we have no understanding of why she would repeatedly risk her life to save William Lamb. It felt very strongly that the author is hoping to leave the door open for a sequel to The Fourteenth Letter (probably one which sees the Vicomtesse Adeline return in her mask like the Phantom of the Opera and attempt to claim her grandchild/nephew/niece to continue her eugenics programme with the help of now President Cornelius Tinbergen forcing Savannah to return to America…whether she’ll still have goose-stepping German soldiers propping up her eugenics programme following the demise of her brother remains to be seen) and if it does, I hope we’ll see more characterisation.

As a plot driven novel, it’s enjoyable enough but I felt that the switch from murder mystery to an exploration of Darwinism and eugenics was a bit of a cliché fuelled stretch.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life after life by Kate Atkinson book cover with snow fox and rabbitHave you ever wondered what would have happened if you’d done something differently? If you changed how a major event or minor detail in your life had played out, where your life might have taken you? And if you had the chance to live your life again what would you do differently?

In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson explores this concept. In February 1910, a baby girl is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm. The midwife who has been called to attend the birth is stuck because of the snow. The doctor doesn’t arrive in time for the birth. The cord is wrapped around her neck and she dies before she can draw a breath.

In February 1910, a baby girl is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm and lives to tell the tale. They call her Ursula, and she goes on to live life after life.

I’ve had Life After Life on my bookshelf for four years now but I’ve been wary of starting it. My friend gave me the book, but when I started having problems with my pregnancy warned me not to read it until I was in a better place. I was wary about what this meant and so I only really felt in the right place to approach it recently.

I found Life After Life to be an incredibly powerful book and technically brilliant. In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson tells us the story of Ursula Todd and her family multiple times, shifting small details of each telling to craft the impression of a different life but despite this repetition, the text doesn’t become repetitive. If anything, this repetition serves to increase the emotional impact as you see the near inevitability of the story playing out again and again. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than the section in which Ursula and her family are visited by the Spanish Flu which devastated so much of Europe at the end of World War Two. The scenes here weren’t obviously emotively written, but they were emotionally devastating. At the same time, this is where Atkinson carefully begins to draw out the idea that Ursula might be something more than the strange and thoughtful child that her family characterise her as, and we begin to see that her sense of déjà vu is related to tragedies in her previous attempts at living the same life.

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

This isn’t so much a novel about reincarnation as second chances, and doing things right. It asks us, what does it mean to live your life well? In some of Ursula’s lives that move on to adulthood she experiences truly harrowing experiences, rape, domestic violence, the loss of her child, but even in the lives where these things don’t occur, and in which she has satisfying relationships with her friends and family, it seems that for the purposes of the novel, she won’t have succeeded in living her life unless her brother Teddy survives the war and his true love Nancy also survives.

I found this focus on the character of Teddy very interesting, because for me it further complicated the mother child relationship that we see between Ursula and her mother Sylvie. There are hints throughout the novel that Sylvie is living her own version of Ursula’s life after life, Sylvie makes reference to “the black bat” of darkness which comes to symbolise Ursula’s death as having been vanquished in one of the first chapters when her baby has survived, experiences similar flashbacks to comforting memories of her own happy place when going through periods of stress, but compellingly has a pair of surgical scissors in her bedside drawer to save her own baby, repeating Ursula’s motto of “practice makes perfect” suggesting that she has indeed made a mental note that this is something that she will need from one of her previous lives. Both Sylvie and Ursula single Teddy out as being special as being the one they will do anything for. Initially I thought that this meant that Teddy was the child of Sylvie’s affair, but in the same life, Ursula notes that Ted had inherited Hugh’s smile.

Part of me wonders whether there is meant to be some kind of deeper resonance between their characters that needs to be in alignment in order for a good life to be lived. In the good life which sees Sylvie save Ursula and Teddy then survive the war, their character’s best lives are lived in alignment with their right actions combining to ensure the positive action. In one of the most distressing versions of Ursula’s life, when Ursula comes to see herself as deficient and broken, Sylvie’s attitude reflects this break and this is the time that we see her character at her worst as she rejects her daughter and Ursula notes that she used to love her, and now she didn’t. This is also the story in which Ursula sees Sylvie with another man, so we can suspect that some of this is projected self-loathing. It’s clear that while Sylvie repeatedly insists that there is no higher calling for a woman than being a wife and mother, there are times at which she resents this role and seems to envy Izzie’s freedom. In one of Ursula’s better lives, it is implied that her daughter rejects this role and lives a fulfilling life without becoming a wife or mother.

In the end, as I read it, Ursula’s successful life, the one in which Teddy survives and she gets to continue her life with him, isn’t the one in which she kills Hitler. It’s interesting to see that the follow up to Life After Life, A God in Ruins will focus on Teddy’s life after the events of Life After Life, and I’ll add this to my dangerously tall TBR pile to see whether Kate Atkinson offers up any answers to the questions that Life After Life has left me with.