Best books January-June 2019

As usual, most of my recent choices belong to the categories of crime fiction, biography, psychology or medicine. They are listed alphabetically according to title, and the links refer to the versions on Amazon.com.

Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce: Adultery, alcoholism and unnatural death among lawyers in London. Although the characters are unlikeable and the content rather sordid at times, I agree with the statement on the blurb that this psychological suspense novel is “bold, provocative  and utterly gripping”.

How to Change your Mind by Michael Pollan: There is renewed interest in using psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin for treating certain mental disorders, relieving the distress of dying patients, and enhancing the wellbeing of healthy people. This long book contains detailed information about the history, politics and chemistry of these drugs, and describes the author’s own experience of taking them.

In Extremis: the Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum: Marie Colvin was a courageous and intrepid reporter who continued working in the war zones of the Middle East after being shot by a sniper and losing the sight of one eye. She was eventually killed by a rocket attack in Syria. This book, described in more detail in my recent blog post Two Brave Women, is written by a close friend and colleague with direct knowledge of her adventurous career and tumultuous personal life. 

Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: A long literary novel about a psychopath who will stop at nothing to achieve his ambition of becoming a famous author. Lacking the ability to produce original material of his own, he becomes increasingly ruthless about poaching it from elsewhere. The complex narrative includes a fictional encounter with a real writer, Gore Vidal. I heard John Boyne discussing the ethics of using other people’s ideas and experiences for writing novels at the 2019 Auckland Writers’ Festival.

Nothing Bad Happens Here by Nikki Crutchley: Set in rural New Zealand, this is an easy read and unlike many modern murder mysteries it is not too long and not too graphic. The disappearance of a young woman tourist is investigated by a sympathetic local cop, and a journalist tackling problems of her own. I discovered this book through hearing the author speak at the 2019 RotoruaNoir festival.

On the Marshes by Carol Donaldson: The author is an environmentalist who leads a simple alternative lifestyle on the North Kent marshes, and has a deep knowledge of the local ecologyCombining travelogue and personal memoir, her book is a beautifully written and engaging account of a year spent walking over these isolated wetlands while adjusting to the end of a relationship. I was brought up near the area and recently felt the desire to revisit it; my next novel will be partly set there. 

Our Friends in Berlin by Anthony Quinn: A wartime thriller set in 1941 during the London Blitz. This story of espionage combined with an unlikely love affair has an intriguing plot and is elegantly written. I became so involved with the characters that I found myself quite affected by the bittersweet ending.

The Incurable Romantic by Frank Tallis: Stories of obsessional or delusional sexual love, from a psychotherapist’s case book. Although presented as true verbatim accounts, they include so much detail about the patients concerned that they must either be highly fictionalised or show no regard for confidentiality. These reservations aside, the book contains interesting descriptions of disorders such as morbid jealousy and de Clerambault’s syndrome, notoriously difficult to treat.     

The Knife’s Edge by Stephen Westaby: Since my husband’s life was saved by cardiac surgery I have had huge admiration for those with the skill, stamina and courage to practice this specialty. Westaby writes graphic descriptions of operating on complex and apparently hopeless cases. He also makes some frank personal disclosures. Following a frontal lobe brain injury sustained during a student rugby match, he changed from a quiet shy young man to a brash extrovert with some psychopathic traits. This probably helped rather than hindered his progression to pioneering heart surgeon. I regret that I never met him in Oxford although we worked in different hospitals there at the same time. 

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson: Inspired by true events, this novel is about an Icelandic family captured by pirates in 1627 and taken to Algeria to be sold into slavery. The privations they experience, and the psychological tensions that ensue, are described from the point of view of a pastor’s wife who gives birth on the voyage and is subsequently separated from her husband and children. I seldom read historical fiction, but was given this book for Christmas and enjoyed it. 

The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid: Following a riding accident, British journalist Melanie Reid became almost completely tetraplegic. This memoir describes her long years of rehabilitation, first in hospital and then at home. With courage and determination she navigates the limitations and indignities of coping with a spinal injury, gradually achieving a level of function much better than predicted. More detail about her frank and darkly humorous account can be found in my blog post Two Brave Women

Two brave women

My list of non-fiction recommendations for 2019 will include two biographical books about women who sustained life-changing injuries in middle age. By coincidence, both books arrived together from my local library last week, and I noticed several similarities between their subjects: both were born in the late 1950s, grew exceptionally tall and athletic, worked as journalists for the Times newspaper group, and were injured as a result of their chosen activities. But the nature of their traumas, and their ways of coping, were very different.

My former medical career brought me into contact with many people recovering from serious illness or injury. Emotional responses varied tremendously. Initial distress usually resolved, being replaced by the capacity to accept and cope even with longterm impairment, often including some positive changes in attitudes, beliefs, relationships or way of life. But not everyone was able to adjust, and some were left with ongoing psychiatric symptoms. Given the complex interplay of biological, psychological and social factors unique to each case it is unwise to generalise or to predict individual responses, and blanket advice to “think positive” or show a “fighting spirit” can be unhelpful. The stories of the women in these two books illustrate this diversity. 

Melanie Reid (1957 – ) was thrown from her horse in 2010 when he refused a cross-country jump. She sustained spinal fractures which rendered her tetraplegic apart from having limited function in her right hand. Her memoir The World I Fell Out Of describes the months she spent in hospital, and subsequent years back at home with her husband. The practical limitations of being largely confined to a wheelchair mean that the mundane essentials of living – washing, dressing, toileting, eating and drinking – require assistance, and occupy a large part of each day. The inability to move, the bodily disfigurement, the loss of sexual attractiveness, being deprived of the sense of touch, have a huge emotional impact for patients themselves and for those close to them. To a healthy person all this might sound so horrific that it would inevitably lead to deep despair and the desire to end it all. Spinal cord injury is in fact one of the few medical disorders shown to be associated with a raised suicide rate (Harris and Barraclough 1994). Melanie Reid does make brief reference to considering a one-way trip to Switzerland, and to taking antidepressants, but on the whole her mood stays upbeat. With tenacious determination to work on rehabilitation, her physical function improved much more than her doctors predicted. She was eventually able to drive a car, and even return ride a horse until she was thrown off again and suffered further injuries. She has overcome this setback, and continues to channel her mental energy into writing. This book, and her “Spinal Column” in The Times, contain frank and often darkly humorous accounts of life following her accident.

Marie Colvin (1956-2012) lost the sight of one eye after being shot in the face and chest by snipers in Sri Lanka in 2001. In Extremis: the life of war correspondent Marie Colvin, written by her friend and colleague Lindsey Hilsum, gives a comprehensive account of her life and complex character. Described as brave, passionate, driven, intellectually outstanding, beautiful, glamorous and generous, she has been hailed as the greatest war correspondent of her generation. Yet quotations from her diaries reveal an inner insecurity and her personal life was tumultuous, marked by heavy drinking and smoking and a succession of doomed love affairs. The optic nerve injury, though not the main focus of the book, was a watershed. Her blind eye had been preserved and looked normal from outside, but she always covered it with a large black patch: “part of me in a way, something that would make a clear division between life before and after”. She also replaced all her clothes with those of a more “architectural” cut than her previous “lacy or flowing styles”. As soon as she was physically fit she resumed assignments in the Middle East but worsening nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and depression eventually forced her to take leave and undergo psychiatric treatment for post traumatic stress disorder. Over the next few years, while her intrepid forays into war zones and graphic dispatches brought international acclaim, her private life became increasingly miserable and chaotic. She was killed by a rocket attack in Syria in 2012.  

Inevitably, reading such stories makes me wonder how I would cope with a life-changing injury myself. And it could happen to anyone, even someone like me who is neither athletic nor adventurous and is not attracted to extreme sports or situations. My most demanding activity is dog-walking and even this can be hazardous – I have already had two bony fractures due to being knocked or pulled over by excited canines. Both injuries have healed perfectly but I know they could have been much worse, in which case I very much doubt that I would have been able to marshal such courage and determination as that shown by Marie Colvin or Melanie Reid. But none of us can predict how we will respond if faced with a health challenge of such magnitude as theirs.