March in books

“Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably” –┬áC. S. Lewis

March saw me reading more than I blogged (whoops), although February’s habit of getting a few chapters in before deciding a book “wasn’t for me” took a while to wear off. Luckily a couple of long train journeys and a few days off work did the trick, as did speed reading a couple of choices for Alex’s Blogging Good Read series!

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 20.25.24Part autobiography, part philosophy, Do No Harm is a collection of short anecdotes by one of the world’s leading neurosurgeons. Published in the months leading to his retirement, the book chronicles both Marsh’s own career and the changes to the NHS over a forty year period.

I picked this up on a whim after being vaguely aware of good reviews, but it took me a long time to get round to reading it. It was worth the wait – this is one of the most moving and thought provoking books I’ve ever read. Marsh has an astonishing way of exploring the people behind the operations he performs, and is incredibly honest in describing how he remembers his failures rather than his successes (a scene where he visits a former patient in a long term care facility and realises that he recognises many of the names is heartbreaking). He explores his own ego and is surprisingly aware of his own faults – this makes him all the more impressive, particularly as none of the ego is demonstrated when he talks about his voluntary work teaching in post-Soviet Ukraine. Don’t let the somewhat gory subject out you off, Do No Harm is much more an exploration of life, death and kindness.

Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road

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First published in 1970, this collection of letters between Ms Hanff, a writer in New York, and the staff at Marks and Co., situated on Charing Cross. Spanning four decades and hundreds of exchanged parcels, the letters begin some unlikely but lifelong friendships.

It’s an unusual book, this. I often find letter- formed stories hard to read, so I listened to it as an audio book, which worked well. The upside of the letters is that, as far as we are aware, they are all real and the correspondents slowly come to life as the years go past. The downside? I can’t help thinking they are edited. There are considerably more from Hanff to the bookshop than the other way around, and unfortunately I found the London characters much more interesting. Hanff comes across, despite her generosity to the staff in sending food parcels, as somewhat of a diva, and I often found myself rolling my eyes at her. It’s a pleasant enough tale but unfortunately not quite up there with The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society, which I couldn’t help but compare it to.

Michelle Birkby, The House at Baker Street

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When Sherlock Holmes turns down the case of Laura Shirley’s blackmail, his housekeeper Mrs Hudson is appalled – and is convinced that she can help. Roping in Mary Watson (and several other familiar characters), to help her, she quickly realises that lives are at stake as well as reputations.

I’ve already mentioned how much I enjoy Holmes adventures, and this was a rather good spin-off. I found the first couple of chapters rather frustrating (lots of “more on that later” type talk which never quite got explained) but the story quickly became gripping and I found myself racing through it. Conan Doyle pretty much ignores his female leads, so it was fun to have them come out of the shadows. The plot itself was quick paced, and although there were the usual historical liberties taken, I easily forgave them, because it was an enjoyable read. I hope there’ll be another in the series soon.

Kerry Greenwood, Cocaine Blues

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The first of the Miss Phryne Fisher series, Cocaine Blues introduces us to our heroine. Phryne is persuaded to return to her native Australia to investigate the suspected poisoning of a family friend, and finds herself caught up in a mysterious Cocaine racket – with dangerous consequences…

After enjoying the Australian TV adaptions, I thought it was time to give the novels a try. Phryne is not your typical 1920s heroine, she’s sparky, scandalous and would fit in rather well with my group of girlfriends – despite her modernity being a little jarring against the backdrop at times, she is rather marvellous. In some ways, the mystery is secondary as the book is really a scene setter for the rest of the series (it reminded me of the pilot episode of a TV show, introducing people rather than plot), with Melbourne’s seedy underworld being explored and Phryne’s new friends introduced. For the second time this month, though, I’m looking forward to the next adventure.

Jostein Gaarder, The World According to Anna

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Published on the twentieth anniversary of his famous “Sophie’s World”, Gaarder’s latest novel is a Young Adult tale of a teenage girl who finds herself receiving messages from the future, when her great granddaughter asks her to stop climate change.

I was really looking forward to reading this – having never quite got around to picking up any of his other classics I was excited to see what the fuss was about. Oh, how disappointed I was. Gaarder’s premise was interesting, but there was no explanation of how Anna recived her messages, and the characterisation was, in my humble opinion, dire (particularly Anna’s psychiatrist, who was a cartoon). I also found myself rolling my eyes at how far fetched and inaccurate some of his assumptions of climate change are. I’m not the biggest fan of YA, as done badly it can read like it was written by a YA, and sadly this fell into that category. Not for me at all.