National Heroes Service

11 days ago, our son Noah was born. It was not an easy pregnancy, with minor complications along the way.  Awaiting our third (and final) child was far from the exciting time that all parents hope for. His safe arrival was down to a dedicated team of medical professionals.  Once again the process felt like miracle and madness in equal measure.

We came home on the day he was born, looking forward to a crazy life with three boys.  5 days later we were returned to Earth with a bump.  During a routine midwife visit, it turned out Noah had lost far too much weight.  Before we knew it, we were back in the hospital, in a crowded room filled with a doctors vying desperately to put in a cannula.  Compared with many parent’s experiences Noah’s travails were minor, but this was comfortably the worst moment of my life.

Fortunately Noah stabilised quickly, and from then on it was a case of sitting, watching and waiting whilst he normalised.  There were no further dramas, just two parents willing their son to be able to come home.  Except it wasn’t just us two.  For Noah’s care we used a tiny fraction of NHS resources, yet countless people worked tirelessly to bring him back to full health.  Noah slept a lot during his first two days in hospital, so I had a lot of time to observe and marvel at the scale and brilliance of our National Health Service.

The hospital is like a beehive, filled with hundreds of bees scurrying about, fulfilling specialist tasks, that they alone are suited to do.  Midwives, Nurses, Cleaners, Consultants, Housekeeping, Registrars, Deep Clean Teams, Maintenance, Senior House Officers, Nursery Nurses and Students, so many people all working together to try and make their patients better.  All wearing differing colour uniforms; a rainbow army battling for a healthier Britain.  The system isn’t perfect, not everybody did a perfect job, but they were unified in their role of bringing Noah back to health.  One night whilst we were there, somewhere deeper in the neonatal care unit, there was something serious happening. Staff were called away.  On the low-risk section we saw almost nobody.  At 06.30 a registrar came to take Noah’s blood.  He looked terrible, yet he gave Noah the care and attention he needed, and took time to reassure my wife that Noah was making progress.   That level of dedication is priceless.

The logistics of running a hospital are incredible.  Everything is checked and changed regularly, from beds and barrier curtains to the Milton sterilising fluid.  There is a protocol for everything. On the face of it, it seems like ‘Health and Safety gone mad’ yet everything is done for the patient’s benefit.  There are bottles of alcohol based hand cleaner everywhere you look, and countless bottles of liquid soap too, all in response to the threat of MRSA.  Toilets that aren’t used regularly all have a decommissioning protocol stuck to the wall, that detail how to combat Legionnaire’s disease.  It feels like nothing is left to chance in order to improve patient care.

Noah came home on the day that Doctors went on strike.  This is not a political piece, so I won’t comment on how I feel about that, but I was overwhelmed by the enormity of the entity that is the NHS.  We treat the NHS like a crochety relative.  We like to moan about it, but love it deeply and would much saddened if it was no longer there.  The NHS may just be the pinnacle of human endeavour.  It exists for all our benefit, young and old, rich or poor and is something to be proud of.  Let’s hope it stays that way.

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Ghosts in the Machine – Haunters by Thomas Taylor

You may never have heard of Thomas Taylor but you have certainly seen his work. As an artist he created the original covers for that moderately successful series Harry Potter.  Now, artist has become author, and the results deserve a wide audience too.  The concept for Haunters is elegant and simple.  There exists among us ‘Dreamwalkers’, who, when asleep, can travel through space and time.

David has a recurring dream that takes place in 1940 (David lives in modern Britain), where he meets Eddie, a child living in war-torn London.  One day, sinister forces try to abduct David from school.  He escapes thanks to the help of another cabal, the secret but benevolent Dreamwalkers.  David learns he has a rare ability; when he dreams he travels to the places he is dreaming about.  Dreamwalkers can’t interact physically with their surroundings, but their presence can alter history, so they try to ensure they leave no trace of themselves.  They appear in their new locations as spectres, giving an elegant explanation for ghost sightings throughout the ages.

The Dreamwalkers operate out of a Hi-Tech subterranean base somewhere in the Swiss alps. Only children can travel through dreams, giving Dreamwalker HQ the feel of Hogwarts run by a Bond villain.  The point of all this? To prevent history being mutilated by villains of the piece, the ‘Haunters’.  Haunters use their time-travelling abilities and ghost-like presence for their own personal gain.  Sometimes this is disrupting important historical events, others it’s as simple as putting lots of money on the 4.30 at Kempton.

Now, Adam, the finest Dreamwalker of his generation, has gone rogue, teaming up with the Haunters.  His goal? To kill Eddie.  David discovers there are many reasons for keeping Eddie alive, not least of which, the friendship they have struck up.  What ensues is a madcap, boys-own adventure across time and space.

Taylor’s novel very much reminded me of Mike Wilks ‘Mirrorscape’ series (a marvellous and criminally overlooked set of books).  Both men are artist turned author; both have a brilliant eye for detail.  The settings in Haunters are evocative and memorable. The story too is strong.  The right blend of action and plot, some great villainy and touching heroics. The story is self-contained yet open. With a time-travel device at the heart of the book, there is plenty of scope for sequels.  Sequels that this reader would find most welcome.

The book is not perfect.  The plot is very black and white.  There are some twists, but nothing mind-blowing, and the main ‘reveal’ is heavily foreshadowed.  The potential paradoxes of time travel go mostly ignored.  If you think too much about the plot, you soon raise some unanswerable questions.   Considering the target age of the book, this probably isn’t a big issue; it may even be a plus, provoking lines of reasoning in young readers.  Elementary physics also says that if the ghosts have no physical presence, they shouldn’t be able to speak, but this complaint is bordering on pedantry.

All my gripes are small, and did not spoil my enjoyment of this innovative and original book. Haunters is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.  Fans of Colfer, Horowitz and Higson, could do a whole lot worse than picking up Taylor.  Recommended.

Frankenstein’s Numbers – ‘The Fear Index’ by Robert Harris

I love the central idea of this book; that it’s fear that drives humanity and controls our desires. Alex Hoffmann is a billionaire computing genius, and co-founder of a successful hedge fund. He believes fear dominates the stock markets. That rumours dictate share movements, and whether a broker can hold his nerve, is all that stands between fortune and ruin.   He made his fortune by creating an algorithm that takes advantage of fear in the marketplace.  After a break-in at Hoffmann’s high-security mansion, he finds himself at the centre of a terror campaign.  Alex has used fear to his great advantage, and now somebody is trying to use it to manipulate him, to force him to become predictable. But to what end?

Anybody who has read ‘Fatherland’ will know that Harris is a master at maintaining suspense.  So it’s no surprise that The Fear Index is very readable.  But I felt there was something missing.  Whilst the novel’s build up is good, its conclusion feels underpowered.  When Harris reveals the twist, it is hard to greet it with anything more than indifference.  There is lots of interesting stuff in the book, particularly about how computers rule the stock-exchange; its all in the algorithm.  Harris describes complex financial transactions in an interesting way.  The problem ultimately though is that computers and money are dry subjects, and don’t engender much of an emotional response in the reader.  This is compounded by the novel’s human cast being flat and hard to engage with.  At times it reminded me of Dan Brown.

It’s hard to fully highlight the novels deficiencies without giving away too much.  It is a novel heavily in debt to Frankenstein. Sadly though, this is Mary Shelley’s masterpiece with almost every shred of humanity squeezed out.  For Frankenstein fans there are lots of references to Shelley’s text that are fun to spot, but otherwise ‘The Fear Index is a pale imitation. Whilst factually arresting, as an examination of the human condition,  power and scientific ethics, ‘The Fear Index’ stands in the monster’s shadow. This is a solid holiday read.  Harris’s prose forces you to keep turning the pages, but ultimately its lightweight and forgettable.

Baby, Remember my Name – ‘Fame’ by Daniel Kehlmann

Kehlman’s previous novel ‘Measuring the World’ was straightforward historical fiction.  It’s a pared down affair, that follows the lives of two of Germany’s greatest scientists.  A masterclass in characterisation and ideas, it’s a brilliant read. So, it was with great excitement that I picked up ‘Fame’.  As I stated in my review of ‘Storm at the Door’, reading new books written by favourite authors is not without its pitfalls.  Fame’s pit has a rather large spike in it. It’s not a novel.

OK, you could argue all year about what exactly constitutes a novel, but I would say Fame is a series of interlinking short stories.  Amazon gives it the subtitle, ‘A novel in nine episodes’, which curiously the book itself does not.  So if, like me, you were expecting a straightforward narrative, as found in Measuring the World, you need to adjust your expectations.  I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy the book, because I did, but reading interconnected stories is a wholly different experience to reading a more traditional narrative. The blurb on the back cover was particularly misleading (at least it misled me).  It implies that all the events outlined happen to the same character, as part of a single narrative, but this is not the case.  It took me a while to realise that this was a novel without a beginning, middle and end.   As a result, I had to alter my expectations part-way through reading, which I think adversely affected my enjoyment of the book.

Fame does share some common ground with ‘Measuring the World’.  Both books are concerned with the way we view the world.  Here the stories are more concerned with instant communication and our interconnected world; the fact that it is rare to be completely alone.  They are all set in the twenty-first century.  The opening story follows a man who has a new mobile phone.  Somehow he has been given the phone number of a famous film star.  At first he is annoyed by this, but then gradually he realises, the film star IS only a voice on the phone to some of the people ringing.  He starts to impersonate the star, with consequences for both men.  Later stories feature the film star, who likes the room to manoeuvre his phone doppelgänger has given him, and an employee of the phone company responsible for the error.

The structure of Fame reminded me of David Mitchell’s ‘Ghostwritten’.  Kehlman examines how our lives run parallel to one another, and how a small incidental interaction in one life, may have far reaching consequences for another.  The true impact of an individual’s decision may never be truly felt for many years afterwards.  In this way it reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s prizewinning ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’.

Many of Fame’s episodes are about writers.  All of the stories feature books by a famous (fictional) South American self-help author.  The self-help author himself is given one of the book’s funniest chapters, in which Kehlman skewers the fallacy of spiritual enlightenment books.  There is also a neurotic novelist, who can’t stand his fans, who may be modelled on Kehlman himself.  We see his personal life, but in one story he interacts directly with his characters.  Since these fictional characters touch on lives of characters in the other stories, the exact location of the boundary between fiction and the real-world becomes blurred.  This idea of  nested realities is similarly explored by David Mitchell in ‘Cloud Atlas’.

My favourite story involves a female crime fiction writer, who goes on a cultural exchange to an unnamed Central Asian country.  She becomes separated from the rest of the party, and with a sketchy mobile phone signal, finds herself alone and unknown. It raises questions about personality; is it an external or internal concept?  If nobody knows your story, are you still the same person?  Kehlman’s tales give credence to Mike Carey’s assertion (in his incomparable ‘Unwritten’ stories) that ‘nothing matters more than the stories we tell ourselves.’  To a greater or lesser extent, the persona we present to the world is a fiction, and none more so than those who are famous.

‘Fame’ is short and easy to read. Its nine episodes won’t be to everybody’s taste; there is very little descriptive meat on the bones of each story.  They each form part of philosophical framework that questions what personality means in the age of social media. Each story is enjoyable.  They are all thought-provoking and often funny, but overall I felt ‘Fame’ lacked any unifying coherence.  This is an interesting and diverting read, recommended for fans of reality bending self-referencing short stories, but it doesn’t feel complete.  Though I enjoyed reading Fame, and would recommend it, if you haven’t read the other titles I mention in this review, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest you read those first.

‘The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making’ by Catherynne M. Valente

‘The Girl Who…’ is a book some people will love and others will find unreadable.  It is a modern fairytale with a distinctive, arch style that will annoy some readers, but enthral many others.  The verve with which Valente writes gives an impression of fresh originality, but this is a book steeped in storytelling tradition, and Valente’s novel shouts out its references and sources of inspiration.

In the tradition of Narnia and Wonderland, the central character, September, enters Fairyland through a portal from the real world.  Like Dorothy, September meets curious and defective characters to journey with.  Shoes pay a pivotal role in the plot too, and there is a much talk of finding a way home.  Like all good fairytales there is a powerful amoral villain and there are an abundance of moral lessons to be learned.  The clever wordplay channels Lewis Carroll and the novel contains the finest characterisation of Death since Pratchett.  These are Giant’s boots to fill, and Valente is mostly successful.

I did not completely love this book.  Sometimes its fey whimsy became too much.  The tale is told by an all-too-knowing narrator, who at times, got on my nerves.   After  a short reading break however, I would come back to the book, ready to appreciate its many qualities.  Like all fairytales the central story is slight.  What impressed me was the depth of Valente’s imagination.  Some of the ideas in ‘…Her Own Making’ may be older than time, but Valente has freshened them up and given them a new lease of life.  Like the best authors of fairytales, Valente uses her creation’s otherworldliness to examine facets of our real-life existence.  Time and again, I was surprised by a perceptive observation, simply delivered.  Death, books and friendships; Valente skewers these and many other aspects of life, with just a few short paragraphs of elegant prose.  The conclusion of the novel is particularly poignant, tying together a novel, which at times feels like it had been created using an ideas scattergun.

Whilst I didn’t enjoy every page of ‘Circumnavigated’, Valente’s style continually reminded of one of my favourite children’s authors, and expert curator of fairytales, Joan Aiken (author of the excellent Necklace of Raindrops).  For me, there can be no higher praise than that.  If fairytales and whimsy aren’t your thing, this book probably won’t convert you, but if you have the slightest leaning towards the fey, then you will find much to enjoy.  The book is left open for a sequel, and whilst I wouldn’t sit down and read it tomorrow, in a few months time, I would definitely come back for more.

Many thanks to Sam at Corsair for sending me a review copy of this book.

The Opposite of Wonderland – ‘The Storm at The Door’ by Stefan Merrill Block

Stefan Merrill Block’s ‘The Story of Forgetting’ is one of my all-time favourite novels. It’s a delicate and touching story of the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s, that also contains the beautiful motif of an evolving fantasy story.  Reading new books by favourite authors always sets the spine tingling, but I often find that underneath my excitement is a tinge of dread; what if I don’t like it?  At first with ‘The Storm at the Door’, I thought my fears may be realised; I did not find it an easily accessible novel.  On finishing, I was relieved.  Whilst this book won’t break into my best 10 books of all time list, once again Block has shown himself to be a masterful storyteller.

‘Storm at the Door’ is semi-biographical.  Much like he used his family’s history of early onset dementia as the basis for ‘The Story of Forgetting’, Block draws inspiration for ‘Storm at the Door’ from his maternal grandparents’ struggles against manic depression.  The novel is mostly told through two viewpoints.  Frederick, Block’s grandfather and Katharine, his grandmother.  The chapters that follow Frederick detail his manias, the troubles they cause and predominantly, his miserable existence inside one of America’s premier mental asylums.  Katherine’s chapters detail how she struggled to cope with being married to Frederick and the guilt that consumed her after he had been committed.  Block also shows, with great tenderness, how his grandmother struggled to find her own identity after her own personality had been overwhelmed by motherhood and the overwhelming shadow of her husband’s illness.

Much of the book details the appalling conditions inside the Mayflower Home, highlighting the perils of institutionalised care for the mentally ill.  Comparisons are inevitable with ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Both books contain a host of memorable and misunderstood characters gripped by mental disorders, both question how you determine the border between sanity and insanity, and both books contain characters that are at best misguided in their attempts to help their patients and at worst feel the need to inflict misery on their defenceless charges.  Whilst both books are similar, Block’s is not in the same league as Ken Kesey’s masterpiece.

I struggled with the book at first.  Block’s use of language is artful, but it failed to draw me in.  I couldn’t identify any overarching narrative; there were lots of (well-drawn) vignettes of life with mental illness, but little to draw them together.  Gradually though, I began to warm to Block’s characters, in particular Frederick, who Block paints with warmth and tenderness.  When Frederick mistakenly stumbles across a secret kept by the warden of Mayflower House, his situation becomes precarious in the extreme.  At this point humanity of the novel bursts through.

The last hundred pages of ‘The Storm at the Door’ are fiction at its best.  The events that transpire at Mayflower House prove the fulcrum for change for many of the novel’s characters.  As he did in ‘How to Forget’ Block handles an emotive subject with rare delicacy, and when the author himself appears in the novel, it reaches a whole new level of poignancy.  Block’s characterisation is very good, and it is impossible not to feel deeply moved by the novel’s events.  The quality of the last chapters of the book, make it a thoroughly worthwhile read.  Once again, Block has written about a terrible illness that affects thousands of people with great sensitivity.  Highly Recommended.

The Big Awake – ‘Everlost’ by Neal Shusterman

I’m a big fan of Neal Shusterman’s Unwind.  In a world full of Young Adult dystopias, it’s second to none.  The Everlost sequence of books is aimed a slightly younger readers (12-15), and despite being about dead children, is a much lighter read than Unwind.   Shusterman’s prose is fluid and engaging; he writes with a wry sense of humour.  His books pack an emotional punch whilst asking thought provoking questions about life and death.

Although the series is a trilogy, as is often the way, the first novel stands above the other two.  ‘The Everlost’ is a place between worlds.  Some children (and it is only children, the novels contain [almost] no adults), don’t get to wherever it is you go when you die. Instead they get stuck in a world that coexists with our own. The children of the Everlost (called Everlights) can see what is happening in the real world, but cannot interact with it, and are invisible to the living. Shusterman does not dwell on death and dying until late on in the first book.  For much of the time, The Everlost functions as a fantasy setting in which an interesting story unfolds.

Nick and Allie are passengers in two cars involved in a head-on collision.  On their arrival in Everlost, they meet Lief, a boy who has been dead for over a hundred years. Lief introduces them to the peculiarities of their new situation, after which Nick and Allie head toward their old homes, hoping to find out what has happened to their families. On their way, they meet various denizens of Everlost, the strong and the weak, the friendly and the not so friendly. One thing that they do learn is that everybody in the Everlost, no matter who they are, is scared of the monsterous McGill.

The magic of ‘Everlost’ is in the quality of Shusterman’s world building. He has constructed a completely credible afterlife. Objects can come through too The Everlost, but only if they were loved. As a result, there are lots of musical instruments, and vinyl records, but no CD’s or record players. This is a subtle way of examining how we form attachments to inanimate objects. Buildings too, can make it to the Everlost, which makes for interesting reading once the children reach New York.  The opening novel is riveting from start to finish, with some great devices (including the best use of fortune cookies in fiction, ever!). The story is both exciting and a moving examination of good, evil and the blurred areas between them.

The second novel, picks up sometime after the first, but as time is a malleable concept in the Everlost, this doesn’t mean a great deal. Once again, its major themes are loss and redemption.  In order to flesh out his story, Shusterman adds new concepts to the Everlost, most of which work well, but there are some that do not.  As we move into the third novel, the rules of the Everlost change yet again, and not for the better. In the first novel, The Everlost was an almost perfect creation, but a result of Shusterman’s tinkering, its internal logic gradually becomes corrupted.  Shusterman’s changing of the rules, to give him more room to tell his story works to the detriment of the idea as a whole.  They’re his rules, so he can do what he wants with them, but as the series ended, I felt that the laws governing The Everlost wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny.  After reading the first instalment, I would have said they were bulletproof.

The series increasingly focuses on ‘Skinjackers’; Everlights who can take over bodies in the living world and affect events there. These interactions can be for good or ill, and have unexpected consequences. Shusterman enjoys exploring the moral implications of playing God, and asks the question, is it OK to take one life to save the lives of hundreds of others?  The increased number of real-world interactions  means that The Everlost no longer exists in splendid isolation. Instead of being an Afterlife, it becomes more of an ‘Alongside’ life.

But these are still great novels. The ultimate conclusion of the series is never in much doubt, but the route to the finale is every bit as thrilling and thought-provoking as fans of Shusterman have come to expect.  Each book is filled with wit and verve, contain excitement in abundance and are brimming with invention.  The climax of the series is fitting and moving.  With all the characters being dead children, finding a fitting and respectful conclusion must have been a great challenge. Never maudlin or exploitative, Shusterman delivers a well-balanced and emotional finale for characters you can’t help but love.  Neal Shusterman’s books are excellent, a cut above most of what else is out there. It’s a great shame he seems to be so criminally under-read.