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