Recent Writing for BookBrowse, Shiny New Books and the TLS

Here are excerpts from (and links to, where available) some of my recent reviews for other places. A few of these books will undoubtedly be showing up on my end-of-year best lists in a couple weeks’ time.



I was pleased to have three of the books I reviewed show up on BookBrowse’s list of the top 20 books of the year, as voted for by the site’s readers. What’s more, Educated was voted their top nonfiction book of the year and Where the Crawdads Sing (below) their #1 debut novel. (The third on the list was Unsheltered.)


Beauty in the Broken Places by Allison Pataki: Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are strong at the broken places, and Allison Pataki found that to be true when her husband, David Levy, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident in Chicago, had a near-fatal stroke at age 30. On June 9, 2015, Dave and five-months-pregnant Allison were on a flight from Chicago to Hawaii for their babymoon, planning to stop in Seattle to visit Dave’s brothers. But they never made it there. On the plane Dave told her he couldn’t see out of his right eye.The plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota and Dave was rushed to a hospital for testing. Doctors found he had suffered a bithalamic midbrain ischemic stroke, even though he’d had no risk factors and this stroke type was virtually unknown in patients of his age. Pataki goes back and forth between the details of this health crisis and her past with Dave. Hers is a relatable story of surviving the worst life can throw at you and finding the beauty in it. 


Sick by Porochista Khakpour: Khakpour can’t remember a time when she didn’t feel unwell and like she wanted to escape. “I had no idea what normal was. I never felt good,” she writes in her bracing memoir. Related to this sense of not being at home in her body was the feeling of not having a place where she fit in. Throughout Sick, she gives excellent descriptions of physical and mental symptoms. Her story is a powerful one of being mired in sickness and not getting the necessary help from medical professionals. Lyme disease has cost her $140,000 so far, and a lack of money and health insurance likely delayed her diagnosis by years. There is, unfortunately, some inherent repetition in a book of this nature. At times it feels like an endless cycle of doctors, appointments, and treatment strategies. However, the overall arc of struggling with one’s body and coming to terms with limitations will resonate widely. 


Southernmost by Silas House: In Silas House’s sixth novel, a Tennessee preacher’s family life falls apart when he accepts a gay couple into his church. We go on a long journey in Southernmost: not just a literal road trip from Tennessee to Florida, but also a spiritual passage from judgment to grace. Reconciliation is a major theme, but so is facing up to the consequences of poor decisions. I found the plotting decisions rewarding but also realistic. The pattern of a narrow religious worldview ebbing away to no faith at all and eventually surging back as a broader and more universal spirituality truly resonates. I loved House’s characters and setups, as well as his gentle evocation of the South. His striking metaphors draw on the natural world, like “She had the coloring of a whip-poor-will” and “The sky is the pink of grapefruit meat.” It’s a beautiful, quietly moving novel of redemption and openness to what life might teach us. 


Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s bold eighth novel has a dual timeline that compares the America of the 1870s and the recent past, revealing how they are linked by distrust and displacement. The book’s themes and structure emphasize similarities between two time periods that might initially appear very different. Chapters alternate between the story lines, and the last words of one chapter form the title of the next. It’s a clever and elegant connecting strategy, as is the habit of using variations on the title word as frequently as possible – something Jonathan Franzen also does in his novels. (I counted 22 instances of “shelter” and its variants in the text; how many can you spot?) Kingsolver can be heavy-handed with her messages about science, American politics and healthcare, etc. All the same, Unsheltered is a rich, rewarding novel and an important one for our time, with many issues worth pondering and discussing. 


Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens: It’s easy to see why so many have taken this debut novel into their hearts: it’s a gripping mystery but also a tender coming-of-age story about one woman’s desperately lonely upbringing and her rocky route to finding love and a vocation. Not only that, but its North Carolina marsh setting is described in lyrical language that evinces Delia Owens’s background in nature writing, tempered with folksy Southern dialect. The title refers to places where wild creatures do what comes naturally, and throughout the book we are invited to ponder how instinct and altruism interact and what impact human actions can have in the grand scheme of things. In Kya, Owens has created a truly outstanding character. The extremity of her situation makes her a sympathetic figure in spite of her oddities. Crawdads is a real treat. 



Shiny New Books


Under the Rock by Benjamin Myers: When Myers moved to the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire from London over a decade ago, he approached his new patch with admirable curiosity, and supplemented the observations he made from his study window with frequent long walks with his dog (“Walking is writing with your feet”) and research into the history of the area. The result is a divagating, lyrical book that ranges from literature and geology to true crime but has an underlying autobiographical vein. This isn’t old-style nature writing in search of unspoiled places. Instead, it’s part of a growing interest in the ‘edgelands’ where human impact is undeniable but nature is creeping back in. Interludes transcribe his field notes, which are stunning impromptu poems. I came away from this feeling that Myers could write anything – a thank-you note, a shopping list – and make it profound literature. Every sentence is well-crafted and memorable. “Writing is a form of alchemy,” he declares. “It’s a spell, and the writer is the magician.” I certainly fell under his spell here. 


Nine Pints by Rose George: Nine Pints dives deep into the science and cultural history of blood. George’s journalistic tenacity keeps her pushing through the statistics to find the human stories that animate the book. In the first chapter we track the journey of a pint of blood that she donates in her hometown of Leeds. I was particularly interested, if morbidly so, in the chapter on leeches and bloodletting. Other sections journey further afield, chiefly to South Africa and India, to explore AIDS and menstruation taboos. The style can be choppy and repetitive, given to short sentences and identical paragraph openers, and there are a couple of places where the nine-chapter structure shows its weaknesses. While Nine Pints is quite uneven, it does convey a lot of important information about the past, present and future of our relationship to blood. 



Times Literary Supplement


Face to Face: True stories of life, death and transformation from my career as a facial surgeon by Jim McCaul: Eighty percent of a facial surgeon’s work is the removal of face, mouth and neck tumors in surgeries lasting eight hours or more. McCaul also restores patients’ appearance as much as possible after disfiguring accidents. Here he pulls back the curtain on the everyday details of his work life: everything from his footwear (white Crocs that soon become stained with blood and other fluids) to his musical choices (pop for the early phases; classical for the more challenging microsurgery stage). Like neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, he describes the awe of the first incision – “an almost overwhelming sense of entering into a sanctuary.” There’s a vicarious thrill to being let into this insider zone, and the book’s prose is perfectly clear and conversational, with unexpectedly apt metaphors such as “Sometimes the blood vessels can be of such poor quality that it is like trying to sew together two damp cornflakes.” This is a book that inspires wonder at all that modern medicine can achieve. 


On Sheep: Diary of a Swedish Shepherd by Axel Lindén: Lindén left city life behind to take on his parents’ rural collective in southeast Sweden. This documents two years in his life as a shepherd aspiring to self-sufficiency and a small-scale model of food production. Published diaries can devolve into tedium, but the brevity and selectiveness of this one prevent its accounts of everyday tasks from becoming tiresome. Instead, the rural routines are comforting, even humbling, as the shepherd practices being present with these “quiet and unpretentious and stoical” creatures. The attention paid to slaughtering and sustainability issues – especially as the business starts scaling up and streamlining activities – lends the book a wider significance. It is thus more realistic and less twee than its stocking-stuffer dimensions and jolly title font seem to suggest. 


16 responses

  1. I like the look of Where the Crawdads Sing and, surprisngly, Sheep which sounds quite a calming read for our current febrile times.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On Sheep was indeed a quietly enjoyable book, sort of like Diary of a Bookseller – but with sheep! You get into the rhythm of the daily and seasonal routines.

      Where the Crawdads Sing comes out in the UK from Corsair on Jan 17th. It’s one of those big, buzzy books (it was chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s book club) that lives up to the hype.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lovely comparison! And it’s always very pleasing, not to mention rare, when a book lives up to the hype.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. From these reviews, Under the Rock is the most immediately enticing, epecially as that patch of Yorkshre is one I know well. Having recently only read Kingsolver for the first time, that too. And Where the Crawdads sing sounds very promising… Sheep too. What a list!.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would definitely pick Under the Rock as a book for you. (Penny loved it, too.) I’m glad there are several that appeal here 🙂


  3. I enjoyed the Henry Marsh memoir largely because in between descriptions of the surgery we get to learn of the frustrations of a surgeon working within the administrative mess that is the NHS system and also how a surgeon deals with situations where he has to tell patients of an unwelcome prognosis. Does Jim McCaul deal with those topics also – if so I might be inclined to go for this

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was reminded of Henry Marsh’s work several times while reading Face to Face, especially his wonder at the human body and his guilt when procedures go wrong or there’s nothing he can do to help. McCaul doesn’t talk all that much about the NHS. He mostly expresses gratitude that it exists (as opposed to the situation in Florida when he was learning how to deal with gunshot trauma and his hands were often tied by ludicrous health insurance policies), and hopes that things like junior doctors’ pay will get sorted out so it can continue to function.


      1. the Florida aspect makes it even more interesting. I shall put this one on my list to read, Thanks for highlighting it Rebecca

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Beauty in the Broken Places sounds very good, as does Face to Face. I felt similarly to you about Sick. I’m reading the Kingsolver at the moment and very much enjoying it, but for me the two threads of the novel are pulling against each other – while I like the thematic echoes, I feel like I’m only just sinking into one world when I’m pulled back to the next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad I can tempt you with some medical reads! I’m hoping for Face to Face to do well in next year’s Wellcome Prize race.

      I can understand your reaction to Unsheltered. I preferred the contemporary story line, while my husband preferred the historical! It was certainly an ambitious approach, but I know it won’t work for some people.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Southernmost and Under the Rock look like nice ones for me to look out for (you know you’ll never tempt me with a medical one but I love the range of books you read and talk about).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Where the Crawdads Sing is on my TBR list. It’s hugely popular in my library system. I’m #130 on the list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! I’m not surprised, though. It was getting a lot of reader buzz even before it was chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s book club.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Once again, I love the variety. I now feel like I want to read every single one of these!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I do love to read a variety. It keeps things interesting for me and for my readers 😉 Of course I read more medical books than average, but even within that subgenre of nonfiction there’s so many different experiences and approaches.

      Liked by 1 person

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