What Hell is Not: Alessandro d’Avenia

★★★★

Don Pino Puglisi is a ray of light in the bleak Palermitan suburb of Brancaccio. More than fifty years ago, he was brought up in this claustrophobic neighbourhood and now, as a priest, he has returned to minister to his flock. And to the children most of all. For Brancaccio is a hell on earth. Dominated by the Mafia, it is a place without hope, without prospects, overlooked by the government ministers who are too frightened, or too corrupt, to intervene. There is no middle school; there are no parks; no space for children to grow. And so Don Pino comes home to fight for Brancaccio’s visibility: to campaign for a better world. Love, hope, compassion: these are things which challenge the Mafia’s stronghold and which try to make hell a better place. But of course the Mafia don’t take kindly to meddling priests. Gritty and heartbreaking, this is a story of one man’s struggle to change the world. It will appeal to those who’ve read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but there’s a twist in the tale; for this is a true story.

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A Notable Woman: Jean Lucey Pratt

★★★★

The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt

I have decided to write a journal. I mean to go on writing this for years and years, and it’ll be awfully amusing to read over later.’ It was Saturday 18 April 1925 and fifteen-year-old Jean Lucey Pratt was making a start on her first diary. Unlike most teenage girls, she actually kept it up: sixty years later, she’d produced over a million words, encompassing national, local and family politics, her ambitions, the frustrations of being a clever woman in a man’s world, her friendships and, most movingly, her constant desire for love. Simon Garfield, the editor of her journals, came across her work as a participant in the Mass Observation project, which gathered the experiences of ordinary people across the country during and after the Second World War. But Jean’s personal diaries go beyond the social history contained in her consciously ‘public’ journals. Here is an intelligent, smart, hopeful woman, longing to live to her full potential – but also a fallible, flawed human being who makes poor decisions, lacks courage, and manages to have whole love affairs in her imagination with someone she’s never actually spoken to. She is inspiring, exasperating and pitiful by turn: a fully-realised, articulate and hauntingly familiar personality.  There is, I think, a little bit of Jean Lucey Pratt in all of us.

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Innocence: Roald Dahl

★★★★

Tales of Youth and Guile

What a crazy few weeks it’s been! Having shuttled back and forth between London, Oxford, Leeds and Washington, I expected to get lots of reading done, but unfortunately I’ve developed an irritating tendency to fall asleep as soon as the train or plane gets moving. Now back home, having shaken off the worst of the jet-lag, I took refuge on my sofa from the nasty cold rain outside and treated myself to the first of several books of Roald Dahl’s short stories, recently reissued in thematic collections by Penguin. Like most people, I suspect, I read lots of Dahl when I was small but never progressed to his writing for adults. This particular collection, with its themes of childhood and naivete, includes Dahl’s autobiography Boy (written for children), as well as a group of other short stories (for grown-ups), some of which reflect his own experiences through a fictional lens.

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All That Remains: Sue Black

★★★★

A Life in Death

Death. It isn’t something that any of us like to think about, is it? However, the one certainty of being alive is that, one day, we won’t be. The funny thing is that nowadays, with all the medical and clinical advances of the modern world, we’re more divorced from death than we have ever been; and we fear it more than ever before. I’m in my early thirties and the only dead bodies I’ve ever seen are in museums. I have never been with one of my relatives when they’ve died, nor visited them in a chapel of rest (the result of living a long way away from the rest of my family). And I feel that something is missing, somehow. Not that I want to be ghoulish, but I do want to understand what and how things change at that final threshold. Hence the attraction of this book, written by Sue Black, an anatomist and forensic anthropologist at Dundee University. Black combines dazzling distinctions (she’s a Professor and a Dame) with refreshing down-to-earth Scots candour, and her remarkable book is part memoir, part treatise on death.

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Nefertiti: Joyce Tyldesley

★★★★

Unlocking the Mystery surrounding Egypt’s Most Famous and Beautiful Queen

Writing about icons is a difficult business. Even biographers of modern stars like Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley must wade through a morass of secrets, theories and fantasies. How much more difficult to choose a subject who lived 3,500 years ago, who emerged from nowhere, disappeared back into obscurity, and whose brief, glittering existence has been the subject of fierce iconoclasm! Thanks to the glorious portrait bust in Berlin (see below), Nefertiti is one of the most recognisable figures from Ancient Egypt, but the facts of her life remain tantalisingly elusive. As Joyce Tyldesley teases out the meaning of symbols, inscriptions and sculpted reliefs, Nefertiti’s lost world blossoms into life, in an archaeological story that reads like a detective novel. This is a tale of religious revolution, intrigue, iconoclasm, romance, and mysterious, powerful women. What’s not to like?

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This Is Going To Hurt: Adam Kay

★★★★

Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

In August 2004, bright-eyed and full of enthusiasm, Adam Kay sets off for his first day as a hospital doctor. Six years later, exhausted and traumatised, he leaves the profession. In-between, as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, he delivers over a thousand babies, saves lives, gets soaked in other people’s blood, and removes odd objects from a variety of orifices. This collection of diary entries take us through his career and, as you might imagine, they’re not for the squeamish. They made me wince, and very often I laughed out loud; but they also made me sad. Kay gives a sobering picture of the British National Health Service at a time when its funding is being stealthily shaved away by the government, and the Health Secretary seems to have precious little idea of what doctors are actually doing. These diaries show us what it’s like on ground zero, and it’s not a pretty sight. With humour, sarcasm and compassion, Kay demonstrates how desperately stretched our doctors are. Vital reading, and painfully timely.

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The Madness of Moscow: Cary Johnston

★★

One Man’s Journey of Life and Love in Russia

I was attracted to this book by its promise of revelation. Even in the modern age, Russia is still ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, and its role on the international stage is becoming ever more complex, fascinating and not a little worrying. Recent news has cast it as a country of hackers, oligarchs, corruption and assassins; but how true is all of this? What’s it actually like to be in Russia right now, as a Westerner? What makes the Russians tick? How open is modern Russia to the West and what it stands for? I hoped to find the answers to some of these questions, and hopefully many others, in this book. Unfortunately, though, I was disappointed. Johnston’s account offers little beyond a memoir of partying, vodka-drinking and his eternal and somewhat wearying quest to find his ideal ‘Russian Bride’. For a reporter, it shows a profound lack of curiosity.

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Bite-Sized Memoirs

Bite-Sized Books

Following on from the first batch of bite-sized books, here is a clutch of memoirs to amuse, inspire and gently break your heart. We follow an academic as she braves the shark-infested waters of online dating; a young woman struggling to make ends meet in the post-recession desert of the job market; a young man who has defied the challenges of a rare medical condition; a woman who moves from the city to create a new life focused on simplicity, fresh air and chickens; and the story of a heartrending divorce from the more unusual male perspective. Some really moved me; some didn’t; but all offer engaging scenarios, so take a look and see what might appeal…

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Bite-Sized Books

Bite-Sized Books

I’ve recently begun exploring the shorter books available for Kindle, some of which are free with a Prime subscription. There are Penguin Specials and Kindle Singles, along with the odd short story which doesn’t fit into my regular Tor.com series. As these books are often so short, averaging around fifty pages, I can easily read them on my commute and they’ve encouraged me to take a punt on unfamiliar authors or subjects. And the results are mixed. Some of these works give a brief, striking perspective on a problem or a theme; others, as with all books, promise much but don’t quite fulfill. Here is the first of what will probably become another series, documenting my travels through the world of these shorter, bite-sized pieces of literature, history and journalism.

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Fanny and Stella: Neil McKenna

★★★

The Young Men who Shocked Victorian England

London theatres were notorious for their seedy reputations, but the events of 28 April 1870 were shocking even by the standards of the West End. As the audience filed out of the Strand Theatre, two garishly-dressed ‘ladies’ were arrested by police officers, who accused them of being men in drag. Carried off to Bow Street police station, the women were revealed in due course to be Ernest Boulton (known as Stella) and Frederick William Park (known as Fanny). McKenna’s book unfolds the story of their extraordinary trial for indecency and delves into the secret gay underworld of 19th-century London. It’s a fine story, but its historical credentials are undermined by a relentlessly salacious tone and by McKenna’s fondness for floridly narrative, unsubstantiated assertions.

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