Book Review: The First Breath, by Olivia Gordon

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_first_breath.jpgHow difficult is it to carry out life-saving surgery on tiny patients with ‘veins as thin as spider webs’? The First Breath focuses on astounding advances in fetal/prenatal surgery, particularly complex surgeries carried out in utero well before a baby is born.

Gordon is a British journalist and the mother of a disabled child who spent his first five months in hospital. She carried out thorough research while writing The First Breath. She interviewed leading pediatricians, surgeons, neonatologists and other doctors, as well as midwives, nurses and allied health professionals. She received permission to observe consultations and surgeries. She also traveled outside the United Kingdom to learn about similar procedures carried out in countries such as Sweden.

Gordon challenges readers to consider the ethical issues involved in decisions about termination, the health and rights of the fetus, and the role and purpose of genetic testing. She urges consideration of how terminology influences our attitude and perspective: ‘What we still call ‘abnormalities’ or ‘anomalies’ in the fetus are what we speak of more sensitively after birth as ‘disabilities’ and ‘diversity’.’

Gordon draws on her own and others’ stories when describing the feelings of inadequacy parents can experience. She’s upfront about the book’s focus on mothers, although acknowledges that fathers’ experiences are ‘just as important’. There are in fact many references to fathers throughout the book, including acknowledgement of the help and information provided by her own father, himself a doctor.

Although considerable resources are directed at unwell infants and children, Gordon suggests that the support needs of their parents are not always recognized or acknowledged. She presents a convincing case for more attention to be focused on parents’ mental health and wellbeing. She says that it is not uncommon for the parents of infants with unexpected medical issues, or a diagnosis before or after birth, to feel considerable stress. They may go on to live with antenatal or postnatal depression, OCD, anxiety, panic disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

‘Mothers of healthy babies can work out their own mothering in the privacy of their own home. In the neonatal unit, you’re learning and making mistakes in public.’

Gordon writes frankly about the challenges she and her partner faced during their son’s preparation for, and recovery from, surgery and other interventions. They had to learn the nursing skills required to care for him, such as how to tube-feed and to administer multiple medications. Their life, she says, was never really ‘normal’.

Many parents whose babies have spent time in neonatal units return for visits because ‘it’s a form of catharsis’, says Gordon. Writing this book also appears to have been a form of catharsis for Gordon. I found The First Breath’s mix of first-person and objective, scientific content jarring in some chapters. I wondered whether Gordon had considered writing two books – one a memoir focused on her difficult pregnancy, son’s birth and subsequent unexpected diagnosis with Noonan syndrome; the other focused specifically on the medical and surgical interventions that can save young lives.

Gordon was originally a features writer for British magazines. This perhaps explains her tendency to use melodramatic language to describe some of the situations she observed while carrying out research for her book. Some sections of The First Breath were originally published in mainstream media such as The Daily Mail, The Huffington Post and Red magazine. Maybe Gordon believes that readers of these publications have an appetite for sensationalism. Some of what she heard and saw she calls ‘terrible’ and ‘barbaric’. Parents are ‘aghast’, and ‘terrified and shaking’; pregnancies go ‘haywire’. Her son, en route to an operation, is ‘like a lamb to the slaughter’.

I found her over-zealous use of adjectives to describe children and adults (particularly medical professionals) irritating. Some people sound like characters from a Milly-Molly-Mandy story: ‘the sweetly bustling young district nurse’ and the ‘sensible, friendly-looking midwife with straight brown hair and glasses’. The ‘cool blonde businesslike Australian’ surgeon Kate and the ‘glamorous and charming Colombian neonatal consultant’ are descriptions better-suited to a Danielle Steele novel. Her seeming obsession with people’s appearance (particularly their looks and weight) is especially unfair when directed at children: Gordon compares her son’s ‘stick-like’ legs with the ‘bonny little thighs’ of a baby girl. I wonder how the Director and Clinical Lead for Fetal Medicine services in a leading London hospital feels about Gordon’s description of him as ‘a slim, smiley man [who Gordon] imagined playing carefree games of tennis or yachting in his spare time’, a ‘mysterious heroic figure’, and ‘an upbeat force of nature’. For one doctor, Gordon confesses, she had ‘admiration bordering on a crush’.

The back cover says that The First Breath ‘tells of fear, bravery and love’. This is an accurate summary of the central themes of the book. Fear, bravery and love are shown not only by parents but also by the medical professionals who demonstrate strength, skill and compassion while also sharing their fears and vulnerabilities. Gordon describes the tension for doctors, many of whom are also parents, between becoming emotionally involved and remaining professionally detached.

Before reading this book I had very little knowledge of how modern-day medicine and surgery can save vulnerable infants. I’m in awe of what is possible. The First Breath is centred on healthcare available in the United Kingdom, so it’s not clear to me how many of the surgeries and other techniques described are currently carried out in New Zealand. Gordon provides a list of sources (websites, journal articles, books and so on) that can provide further information about the topics addressed.

I’m not sure whether parents facing the prospect of in utero or neonatal surgery would find Gordon’s book helpful, or instead overwhelming. Only a parent who has lived through a similar experience could make this call. The somewhat voyeuristic tone of Gordon’s writing will not appeal to everyone. And not all stories had a positive outcome.

The First Breath may be a good resource for students of medicine, nursing, social work or similar professions, and health practitioners who are supporting families who face the situations that Gordon describes. It may also be a book that organisations such as Rare Disorders New Zealand , Skylight or IHC could consider stocking in the libraries they maintain for parents and professionals.

Reviewed by Anne Kerslake Hendricks

The First Breath
by Olivia Gordon
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781509871186

Book Review: Allegra in Three Parts, by Suzanne Daniel

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_allegra_in_three_partsAllegra is 11 years old, living in suburban Sydney in the 1970s with her dad Rick and grandmother Mathilde at number 23, and grandmother Joy at number 25. Her mother died when she was very small, and her memory of her is very hazy. Narrated by Allegra, she has little understanding of why this situation is so, only knowing that she constantly feels herself torn into two between her loving but vastly different grandmothers, and the emotionally distant figure of her father.

Allegra is a smart wee girl, extraordinarily sensitive to those around her, in the process navigating the classroom ghastliness of 11 year old girls and keeping her grandmothers happy. Not easy when they can’t stand each other. And yet Allegra does not know why this is. Her growing friendship of fellow outsider young Aborigine girl Patricia further sets her apart from the rest of her class, but not from her teacher Sister Josepha.

1970s Australia is not an easy place for women, and the growing awareness Allegra is finding of the world around her puts her and those she loves on a collision course.

This book could leave you with a tear in your eye. This novel is marketed as teen/YA fiction/coming of age fiction. But is equally enjoyable and meaningful for everyone else. I loved this – all about what it means to belong to a family and to be loved.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Allegra in Three Parts
by Suzanne Daniel
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781760781712

Book Review: The Queen’s Colonial, by Peter Watt

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_queens_colonial.jpgSamuel Forbes, a British aristocrat serving in the New Zealand Land Wars in 1845, is estranged from his family and desperately out of place in the army. Ian Steele, a blacksmith in rural New South Wales, dreams of life as an officer in the British army, but is tied to his widowed mother and held back by being the son of former convicts. When they meet by chance, and realise their similar physical appearance, it gives each of them a chance to follow their dreams.

The story thereafter follows Ian as he takes on Samuel’s persona, attempting to make his way in aristocratic and army circles in England. He makes friends and enemies along the way, and is sent with his regiment and ersatz younger brother to the Crimean War.

Peter Watt has a long list of pubished titles to his name, as well as a varied job history that includes soldiering, which shows in the detail of regimental life, both in London and the Crimea. He’s clearly had success as a writer, although I found his style took a lot of getting used to. The dialogue in particular caused me problems. I found it extremely stiff and formal and quite expository, and not at all how I imagine new Australians talked to each other (and certainly not how other authors portray speech of that place and period). Many of the characters were unexpectedly frank with each other, in ways that even today most people probably wouldn’t be, and it was hard to imagine Victorian men and women being so honest and upfront about their thoughts and feelings, especially after a very short acquaintance. There was also a lot of repetition and detail that didn’t further the plot, and occasionally caused my eyes to glaze over.

Never fear though, I stuck it out, and I’m glad I did. During the second half of the book, I found my enjoyment picked up and I stopped noticing the dialogue and repetition so much. The scenes at the siege of Sebastopol in particular were vividly written and awfully reminiscent of the trenches of World War I. The intrigues of Charles Forbes and Major Jenkins added a sense of anticipation and danger to the story arc. I even found myself looking forward to the next instalment in the series – and I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that in the first 150 pages.

If you like historical fiction with a heavy war angle, The Queen’s Colonial may be for you.  My taste in written dialogue won’t be everyone’s, so judge for yourself at the bookstore, and sample a couple of pages to see if it suits.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

The Queen’s Colonial
by Peter Watt
Published by Macmillan Aus
ISBN 9781760554729

AWF18: Chris Riddell, at SchoolsFest

Written from notes taken at the Intermediate schools session at AWF18 SchoolsFest.

chris riddell insta sketch
Every time Chris made a mark on his paper it was bound for the centre of his story. I have never seen anybody tell stories and draw simultaneously with quite as much success as Chris. While there were dog-legs galore, at no point did he lose track of what he was saying, on words or in illustration. I guess that’s what comes of doing what he does for 30-odd years.

All of the students at this session seemed to know who they had come for, which speaks volumes in terms of how successful the teachers were in preparing them for this session.

Chris told the story of how he began his illustration career, with an image of him as a 3-year-old, drawing on his father’s Study walls with crayons. After that, his mother knew to keep plenty of paper in stock at all times. She used his love of drawing to her advantage, too – his father was a Vicar and he liked to cause mischief in church (he drew his mischief as he went). Loud mischief. So she bribed him – if he was quiet up until the sermon, she would give him a pencil and paper and let him draw: and there was a counter-bribe in the person of Mrs Stock, who would give him wine gums in return for his drawings. (I suspect these will turn up on Antiques Roadshow in about 50 years, when somebody realises their significance).

The result of this formative experience was that he realised early on that he wanted to draw, and be given wine gums for his drawings. Which, as he noted later, is exactly what he does – he is regularly met by fans with wine gums after his sessions (HOT TIP FOR THOSE ATTENDING TOMORROW NIGHT: WINE GUMS).

Chris was taught to draw – well, to illustrate – by Raymond Briggs. He particularly enjoyed drawing Alsatian from the Narnia books. He was an adult before he realised it was Aslan all along, and later put Alsatian the Lion Cub into his Goth Girl books. This story segued into how he had to live decorate a Snowdog (from Snowman and Snowdog) for charity, and decided on fur all over, realising too late that this would mean a bare bottom. A problem he solved with undies on the dog, with a sign ‘nothing to see here.’

If you have read Tara Black’s interview with Chris Riddell, you will know that when he shopped his books to publishers one eventually said ‘but where are your stories’. He promised to come back the next day with one, and spun out his first picture book Mr Underbed as a result. Thank you, Klaus with the mobile eyebrows, for appreciating his talent! (If you haven’t read Tara’s interview, do click through above. You’re welcome.)

An Editor at The Economist read The Trouble with Elephants to his child one night, then called Chris up and asked him if he’d like to do some political cartoons. Chris asked how much it paid ($$$!) and said YES PLEASE. So this stream of his work was born. He stayed there 9 years, and continues to work for The Guardian as a political cartoonist, an aspect of his work which he will engage more with tomorrow evening.

I can’t urge you enough if you haven’t got a ticket, to go and get one. Chris is a true raconteur, one of those rare beasts you meet often enough at Writers Festivals, but only occasionally in the real world – or at least here in New Zealand. He even managed to weave a story around how he became a social media afficianado, beseeching the audience to keep his endorphin spikes coming by giving his posts ‘Lots of Blue Thumbs.’

The kids at the session were respectful and thoughtful with their questions, asking the usual standards – what his favourite book he’d illustrated was (Coraline, by Neil Gaiman), whether he could draw Trump (he has actually drawn him into Goth Girl & The Sinister Symphony, which comes out here in October) and what his favourite type of book to illustrate is (Goth Girl / junior fiction because it has a lot of pages).

He gave long interesting answers to what were simple questions, and I think everybody walked out of there feeling emotionally attached to this regular-joe-looking illustrator with the brilliant mind.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Ottoline and the Purple Fox
Published by Macmillan
9781509881550
Released 17 May 2018

Chris Riddell will be at the school sessions tomorrow, and doing a public session, about which you can find out more below.

The Sketcher: Chris Riddell
5.30pm, Wednesday 16 May, ASB Theatre
Auckland Writers Festival 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_force_of_natureThis is the much-anticipated second novel from Jane Harper. Her debut, The Dry, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the film rights were snapped up. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne and has worked as a print journalist in Australia and the UK for thirteen years.  I loved her debut and was keen to see if her second novel was as engaging. I was not disappointed.

In Force of Nature, we once again meet Aaron Faulk, a Federal Police Agent working in the rugged outback of Australia (he in The Dry, and too good to be a one-novel wonder). He is asked to help to search for a woman missing in the bush. While five women embark on a corporate team building exercise, only four make it out three days later. For Faulk, this is more than a missing person case, as the woman is his key source for an investigation into her employer’s dealings.

Faulk is a man troubled by his past, a little of which was exposed in The Dry. We again glimpse his background through a series of tramping maps left to him by his late father. These maps include the area of the search, and Faulk is forced to recall his memories and ] re-evaluate his ideas about his father.

The Australian landscape is very much a part of this story. The bush, the mountains and the struggle to exist in a small town. I like Harper’s style. She keeps the pace up but manages to capture patterns of speech and the guilt of survivors. As the story unravels, we discover all is not as it first appears. There are tensions within the family company, and suspicions among the staff. This is the stuff of an excellent crime novel.

Force of Nature is a great Australian crime novel because we are drawn into a world where land and man work together to reveal the truth. This is the Christmas novel that will be passed around our family and never actually make it back to me.

by Kathy Watson

Force of Nature
by Jane Harper
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781743549094

Book Review: Selfie, by Will Storr

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_selfieI am not being overly dramatic when I say that we are living in a time of increasing levels of mental illness and challenges to emotional health, actual and attempted suicides, unhappy and unfulfilled people, over whelming pressures to be someone that we may not be internally programmed to be. These have always been issues in our communities through the centuries, but in the last fifty years or so there these issues have jumped to the fore of the lives of many many people in our world. But why? And what can we do about it?

Will Storr’s Selfie takes a look at the very complex issue in two ways – how us humans have become so self-obsessed and, what exactly it is doing to us. Such a complicated subject cannot be easy to write about and the result is quite a complicated, wide ranging, energetic and fascinating exploration into what makes us, and our own individual self. On the flip side, this is a very long book, there is an enormous amount of very detailed information which at times is too much. Plus, for me, way too much space given to long-word-for-word conversations between the author and his interviewee. Some more vigorous editing would not have gone amiss. All of this does make for a book that you need to concentrate on while reading – this is one of my ‘read in the daylight hours’ books, rather than a ‘read before going to sleep’ book, because you do have to be concentrate.

The author himself is an investigative journalist, whose life and career is very, very interesting and successful. In this book, he is very open about his own suicidal thoughts, his perceived dissatisfaction with his own self. After looking at his website, with its diverse range of articles he has written, and his bio listing his achievements, you wonder why. But this is why he is perhaps the perfect person to write such a book. After all he has made it in his field, so what the hell is wrong with him? For these reasons alone this book is excellent as it is written with self interest at its heart, full of passion and that most important ingredient – curiosity.

He firstly sets the scene by looking at why people commit suicide or try, then takes us back to the beginnings of human civilisation when we lived in tribal groups, and conformity/sameness was the way the tribe survived. Then he takes us to Ancient Greece, where a beautiful and perfect physical form was such a crucial part of the philosophy of the times. The rise of Christianity/Catholicism with its rampant notions of guilt planted the seed for self doubt, inability to meet expectations. A long period of time passes till we get to mid 20th century USA with the beginnings of liberalism, the power of the individual, decline of collectivism, which have since evolved into the current latest greatest piece of economic thinking that benefits a few at the top of the money tree, and negates everyone below – neo-liberalism, epitomised in its most raw form as I see it in zero hours contracts. I still can’t get my head around employing someone, but not guaranteeing them any work. Tied up with this is a hilarious and almost unbelievable chapter about the ‘self esteem’ industry in America. That was an absolute revelation for me! He then moves into the frightening world of Silicon Valley, start ups, venture capital, Google and the like.

Finally, the last chapter – how to stay alive in the age of perfectionism – where it is all supposed to come together, but for me doesn’t! The only message I got out of this chapter, is that if you are unhappy in your life, things aren’t going right, you are overwhelmed and not coping, do not try to change yourself. We are essentially programmed from birth to react to situations in a certain way – how do you explain children brought up exactly the same way reacting differently to a life changing event. Because the answer is that you can’t change yourself – there goes the self help industry, cognitive therapy etc. What you have to do is change the world you live in, which translates as change your job/profession, where you live, how you live, who you live with. Easier said than done, but what this solution does is take away that you yourself are 100% responsible for your negative self-perception, and gives you the power to fix things in another way.

Well worth reading, and keeping for future forays. The ten page index is excellent, and the notes/references take up another 50 pages. Whenever you hear or read about why people self harm, you wonder if someone maybe a narcissist, what really went on in those hippie retreats in the 1960s, how Donald Trump got to be in the White House, pick this book up because it explains a lot.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Selfie
by Will Storr
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781447283652

 

Book review: The Mother’s Promise, by Sally Hepworth

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_mothers_promise.jpgThe Mother’s Promise opens with Alice learning she has cancer. Like any mother, her first thought is for her child. Alice is too busy to have cancer, let alone surgery. Alice’s daughter Zoe suffers from social anxiety, and going to school is painful for her. They are a tight unit, with no suitable family or friends to support them. Alice finds the idea of a week in the hospital impossible. Kate, her pregnant cancer care nurse is worried about the lack of support and calls Sonja, a social worker who has some concerns about her own relationship.

Together, the women in this story are brought together by Alice’s treatment. As the story progresses the women become more and more involved until finally a previously unknown connection is revealed. It was clear from the very beginning that Alice and Zoe are a very tight unit who, while experiencing difficulties, feel like they are doing well by themselves. The forced and unwelcome involvement of Kate and Sonja leads to small opportunities to change their lives.

A Mother’s Promise is cleverly written. Different chapters take each woman’s voice and while the story opens with Alice, each of the women are dealing with their own issues. I enjoyed the depth of the characters and particularly enjoyed reading about Zoe and her experience of social anxiety. I liked the themes of belonging and creating your own family, and I really enjoyed the development of the characters. Zoe in particularly goes through a lot of changes – perhaps reflecting her young age and her potential for change. The adult characters are forced to reflect on their past decisions throughout the book, to ensue that Zoe is safe and happy.

I really enjoyed this book. I liked the tight focus on the main characters and developing tension. Sally Hepworth writes with honesty and dark humour on topics that are serious. The topic of a mother and child facing a cancer diagnosis could be maudlin. But Sally Hepworth negotiates the story with sincerity and even joy. I look forward to reading her other books.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

The Mother’s Promise
by Sally Hepworth
Published by Macmillan Australia
ISBN 9781925479959