Get Well Soon: A Five Things I’ve Learned Review…

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.aaaaand a Top Book of 2017 Pick!

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Today’s book is all about death and disease and as such, you wouldn’t necessarily think it would be all that enjoyable to read.  You would, however, be wrong.  Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright is a massively accessible nonfiction book with a conversational tone and enough humour to keep the (in some places) quite terrifying content, readable.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

A humorous book about history’s worst plagues—from the Antonine Plague, to leprosy, to polio—and the heroes who fought them

In 1518, in a small town in France, Frau Troffea began dancing and didn’t stop. She danced herself to her death six days later, and soon thirty-four more villagers joined her. Then more. In a month more than 400 people had died from the mysterious dancing plague. In late-nineteenth-century England an eccentric gentleman founded the No Nose Club in his gracious townhome—a social club for those who had lost their noses, and other body parts, to the plague of syphilis for which there was then no cure. And in turn-of-the-century New York, an Irish cook caused two lethal outbreaks of typhoid fever, a case that transformed her into the notorious Typhoid Mary and led to historic medical breakthroughs.

Throughout time, humans have been terrified and fascinated by the plagues they’ve suffered from. Get Well Soon delivers the gruesome, morbid details of some of the worst plagues in human history, as well as stories of the heroic figures who fought to ease their suffering. With her signature mix of in-depth research and upbeat storytelling, and not a little dark humor, Jennifer Wright explores history’s most gripping and deadly outbreaks.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright:

1. The incredibly deadly Spanish Flu didn’t actually originate in Spain.

2. No matter what the disease, it never does anyone any good when a stigma is attached to those who carry it.

3.  Having a plague that makes you dance non-stop for hours (or days) at a time may sound like fun, until your bones start protruding through your skin just as “Blame it on the Boogie” comes on.

4. Indulging in an illicit romp with a lady of the night is all fun and games until  your nose (and probably hers also) falls off.

5. People actually queued up at one time in history to allow a madman to drill holes in their skulls, in the hope that it would provide a cure for their assorted maladies.

I can’t remember when I last giggled so much while reading about infectious disease as I did while reading this book.  In terms of making nonfiction books accessible, Wright has done a bang-up job here with a narrative style that is light – but never makes light – despite content that can result in some pretty sobering reading.  The humour in this book is almost a necessary vent for the anger and sadness and bafflement some readers may experience while finding out about the ways in which some very sick people – as well as the people who tried to help them – were treated at various points throughout history.

The book covers various plagues in separate sections and includes famous plagues, such as the Black Death, Spanish Influenza, and Polio, alongside lesser known ailments such as the dancing plague mentioned in the blurb, the “plague” of lobotomies orchestrated by William Jackson Freeman III and the plague of Encephalitis Lethargia, which results in the loss of any kind of emotion or motivation and leaves sufferers, in some cases, like living corpses.  Part of the focus of the book is on how authorities and others dealt with these diseases when they first appeared and how this action or inaction affected the disease’s spread.  It’s fascinating to see how the work of some individuals and groups to gain evidence for the causes of certain diseases – cholera being a case in point – was pooh-poohed (pardon the pun) by the authorities and scientific community even in the face of growing numbers of people contracting the disease.

I suspect this book won’t necessarily cut it for those hoping for a scientific look at plagues and their causes, but for the casual reader and those interested in social responses to medical disasters, the book will provide enough information to be going on with.  The style of writing feels like narrative nonfiction, in part because of the way in which the author has highlighted the individuals involved in the outbreaks of each specific disease.  While the use of the term “heroes” to describe these people feels a bit twee to me, I appreciate the fact that these people should be acknowledged and possibly lauded as household names more than they usually are.

My favourite part of the book was the section dealing with Spanish influenza, simply because of the dastardly bad timing that meant this disease came to prominence at the same time as World War 1, leading to catastrophic breakdowns in communication between authorities and the general public that, had this been different, could have saved many lives.  Looking back on the content, I was mildly disappointed that the Ebola virus was not included in the list of diseases, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

If you, like me, enjoy reading about major global disasters in a style that won’t freak you out too badly or exacerbate general feelings of anxiety about the state of the world, this would definitely be one to add to your TBR.

Oh, and I’m adding this to my  Colour Coded Challenge as well.  Check out my progress here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

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The Radium Girls: A “Five Things I’ve Learned” Review….

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If you are into historical nonfiction stories that will leave you gobsmacked at the levels to which people will stoop to avoid paying compensation to someone they’ve hurt, then today’s book will be right up your street.  We received The Radium Girls from Simon & Schuster Australia for review and by gum is it a cracker of a read!  Check out the blurb from Goodreads and then tell me that you’re not interested in finding out more…go on, I dare you!

Ordinary women in 1920s America.

All they wanted was the chance to shine.

Be careful what you wish for.
 
‘The first thing we asked was, “Does this stuff hurt you?” And they said, “No.” The company said that it wasn’t dangerous, that we didn’t need to be afraid.’

1917. As a war raged across the world, young American women flocked to work, painting watches, clocks and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and glamorous – the girls themselves shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in the dust from the paint. They were the radium girls.
  As the years passed, the women began to suffer from mysterious and crippling illnesses. The very thing that had made them feel alive – their work – was in fact slowly killing them: they had been poisoned by the radium paint. Yet their employers denied all responsibility. And so, in the face of unimaginable suffering – in the face of death – these courageous women refused to accept their fate quietly, and instead became determined to fight for justice.
Drawing on previously unpublished sources – including diaries, letters and court transcripts, as well as original interviews with the women’s relatives  – The Radium Girls is an intimate narrative account of an unforgettable true story. It is the powerful tale of a group of ordinary women from the Roaring Twenties, who themselves learned how to roar.

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And here are Five Things I’ve Learned From The Radium Girls by Kate Moore:

1. Exhibiting a “glow” is not always an indicator of good health.  

2. When addressing someone who has recently lost an arm due to industrial poisoning, it is inadvisable to assert that they “look like they have nothing wrong with them”.

3. If the company for which you work takes out full page ads in all the major papers proclaiming how safe their working environment is, it’s probably a good time to consider getting the WH&S people in.

4. People will lie blatantly, repeatedly and to one’s face if they fear having to pay compensation to a wounded party.

5. It’s okay to pretend to be a doctor and carry out medical tests for which you are woefully unqualified provided you (a) are a man and (b) are being well paid by a dodgy company boss.

What a fantastically absorbing read! I suspected that the story of the “Radium Girls” as they became known would be a pretty interesting one, but the pacing and informative style adopted by Moore really set this book apart. The book begins by introducing the reader to the young women who gained work at a factory painting luminous clock dials with radium paint in New Jersey in 1917. Some as young as fourteen, the workers fought hard to bag these painting jobs because the pay was above average for similar positions, and came with the added benefit of a “healthy” glow – the radium residue on the girls’ clothing, skin and hair literally made them glow when they left the factory. As we meet each of the girls in turn and soon become privy to the horrifying sicknesses that begin to plague them, Moore brings in a second set of dial-painters, this time from Ottawa, so we are able to see the whole shocking pattern played out simultaneously in two different cities.

Two scenes in the book stood out particularly for me, but for different reasons.  The first, quite early on in the piece, recounts how one of the women’s dentists, Dr Knef, was working inside his patient’s mouth and ended up lifting out her entire jawbone.  Let that sink in for a moment.  He pulled out HER ENTIRE JAWBONE.  Talk about developing a healthy fear of dentists.  Not satisfied that this was an extraordinary enough experience, he then decided to keep the jawbone in his desk drawer because he didn’t know what else to do with it.  I can’t help but feel he might have at least offered it back to the woman out of whom it came.

The second scene that stood out for me came toward the very end of the book, during which a foreman who was well known as a company man for many years in Ottawa and oversaw the dial painters, blatantly lies while under oath in one of the compensation hearings, stating (in front of the women he worked with, no less!) that he never even worked for the company. Ever.  This might be a good tactic to keep in the back pocket for the next time you find yourself in a sticky situation – just pretend that obvious, long-held facts that can be corroborated by any number of pieces of evidence is simply untrue.  After reading this bizarre attempt to avoid trouble, I myself felt like leaping through the pages and punching this bloke in the face, so I can’t imagine how the women at the hearing felt having to actually hear it themselves.
The descriptions of the suffering of these women can be quite harrowing at times – gazing over a photograph of one of the women, I assumed she had adopted a stylish, cross-legged pose for the camera, but the author reveals that her hip bones actually became fused that way, so that the woman was unable to uncross her legs at any time – but by the end of the epic journey to justice, one can’t help but feel admiration for these two separate groups of women who fought not only against blatant lies and injustice from the company that employed them, but from gender bias that placed mens’ health above women’s. More frustrating still is the fact that similar stories of corporations valuing profit over the safety and health of their workers are still ridiculously common today.  While I felt quite moved by the women’s stories and the courage and determination they showed under enormous misfortune, I couldn’t take away any lasting satisfaction because I could think of at least one major fight going on in the world against a company in South America for similar dastardly behaviour as well as the recent fight of victims of asbestos-related diseases against James Hardie here in Australia.
Moore has done a good job of dividing the story into sections so as to avoid information overload. Each section is deeply engaging in its own right and the stories have been structured so that just as the New Jersey women begin to pursue (and in some cases, achieve) some sort of recompense, the Ottawa women seem to begin the process anew, with all the same frustrations and rather more sinister misdirection from their employer.

The book contains some photographs of the women and other major players in a section in the middle. While this was an interesting addition, I would have also have liked to see a “cast of characters” as it were, at the beginning – this might have added a whole new dimension to the story if we could see who suffered what and in what timeframe.

I thoroughly recommend this book as an eye-opening jaunt into the lives of some incredibly inspirational women and their supporters.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

Mondays are for Murder: Beloved Poison..

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I honestly didn’t think we’d get a Murderous Monday in this month.  Things were looking a bit shaky – time was running out, I’d had a crack at two separate candidates and found them lacking – but then along comes Beloved Poison by E. S. Thomson, kindly provided by Hachette Australia for review, and all of a sudden we have a dark, stench-laden, historical, medical, gender-bending murder mystery on our claws.  Brilliant!  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Ramshackle and crumbling, trapped in the past and resisting the future, St Saviour’s Infirmary awaits demolition. Within its stinking wards and cramped corridors the doctors bicker and fight. Always an outsider, and with a secret of her own to hide, apothecary Jem Flockhart observes everything, but says nothing.

Six tiny coffins are uncovered, inside each a handful of dried flowers and a bundle of mouldering rags. When Jem comes across these strange relics hidden inside the infirmary’s old chapel, her quest to understand their meaning prises open a long-forgottenpast – with fatal consequences.

In a trail that leads from the bloody world of the operating theatre and the dissecting table to the notorious squalor of Newgate and the gallows, Jem’s adversary proves to be both powerful and ruthless. As St Saviour’s destruction draws near, the dead are unearthed from their graves whilst the living are forced to make impossible choices. Murder is the price to be paid for the secrets to be kept.

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Plot Summary:

Jem Flockhart is a young woman pretending to be a young man, working in the apothecary of (architecturally) condemned hospital St Saviour’s, under the guidance of her father and a host of unsavoury medical men.  When Will Quartermain rolls up as the man in charge of overseeing the relocation of interred residents of St Saviour’s graveyard, prior to the hospitals’ demolition, Jem is annoyed at having to share her sleeping quarters and worried that personal secrets may come to light.  While showing Will around the hospital chapel, Jem unknowingly unearths some strange, disturbing relics that will set off a chain of events that threaten nearly everyone Jem holds dear.  One murder follows another and unless Jem and Will can make some links between the past and the present, Jem may well end up accused of the crimes and facing the gallows.

The Usual Suspects:

Pretty much everyone who works at St Saviour’s hospital is a suspect in this unusual murder mystery.  The main doctors, Magorian, Catchpole and Graves, all have motives and shady pasts; the wives and daughter of two of the doctors may well have their own reasons to commit murder; and there are servants, prostitutes and street urchins who could all have played a part.  Given that this is a historical fiction with certain darkish overtones, nobody is entirely blameless of wrong-doing of one sort or another and most of the characters are hiding some sort of secret they’d prefer was kept from the public.

The Hunt for the Murderer/s:

This is a bit of an unusual pursuit, given that the first murder doesn’t happen until quite a way into the book.  Before that, the focus is more on figuring out the meaning behind the strange relics that Will and Jem discover.  Once the first murder occurs though, people start dropping like flies and the hunt is on in earnest.  It’s tricky to pinpoint the killer/s ahead of time though, because salient information is drip-fed throughout and relationships between characters are all important in unravelling the mystery.

Overall Rating:

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Four poison bottles for the steady drip, drip, drip of an alchemist’s retort

If you love a good murder mystery format but are looking for something with a sinister twist and more secrets than you could poke a rag-covered stick at, then I definitely recommend picking up Beloved Poison.  There is so much more going on here than in your typical murder mystery that it actually took me a while to figure out that this was actually going to involve hunting for a murderer.  There’s cross-dressing, graveyard excavation, limb amputations, lady almoners, poisons and potions, degenerative diseases, executions, bizarre rituals, mental asylums, prostitutes, ghostly presences and surgery practiced without regard for cleanliness and hygiene.

If I had to boil this one down though, I’d say that it was about secrets and masks.  We find out early on that Jem is playing a gender-swapping role for reasons that are fleshed out (although not, in my opinion, entirely believable) as the story unfolds, and is assisted in this by a large facial birthmark.  Jem’s father has some secrets of his own, not least of which relating to the death of Jem’s mother in childbirth.  The doctors of the hospital are all playing their own agendas, and each have habits, mannerisms and methods of working that are decidedly unpalatable, and their wives and lovers are just as bad.

The best thing about this book is the pervading atmosphere of bleakness and unrelenting gloom that Thomson has set up.  The historical aspects are faithfully recreated and some of the medical details described in stomach-churning detail.  While the atmosphere is thick with a pervasive miasma of sinister goings-on, the book itself isn’t a depressing read.  Jem and Will, and even apprentice apothecary Gabriel and servant Mrs Speedicut, inject a certain sense of fervour and hope that provides a neat counterpoint to their unsavoury surroundings.  Even if you don’t pick this one up for the murder mystery aspect there is plenty to uncover as you peel back the mud-encrusted layers of the lives of St Saviour’s residents.

I was also happy to see that this appears to be a standalone novel.  After all the shocks and “blergh” moments in this one, I don’t think I could stomach a second foray into London’s stinky historical underbelly any time soon!

I am also submitting this one for the Alphabet Soup Reading Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas:

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You can check out my progress toward that challenge here.

Until next time,

Bruce

 

An Fi50 Reminder…and My Oddest Review Yet!

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Here’s a reminder for all you connoisseurs of micro-flash fiction – Fiction in 50 is kicking off for this month on Monday.  The prompt for April is…

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You fill in the blank!

For more information on the challenge, just click the big button at the start of this post.  If you want to play along, just compose a piece of fiction or poetry in fewer than 51 words and link to your effort in the comments of my Fi50 post on Monday.  New players are always welcome!

Now onto…

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And my oddest review yet!

If you aren’t aware of the Oddity Odyssey Reading Challenge for 2015, it basically entails choosing a level that suits your time commitments and reading books across a number of odd categories.  The real crux of the challenge is to get participants reading books that are odd FOR THEM.  For more information, just click on the big fancy button.

I’m doing quite well in my challenge so far, having read seven of my Audaciously Odd goal of 16 or more books for the year.  Today’s book certainly qualifies in the category of books with an odd subject matter but I won’t be adding it to my total just yet because…..I haven’t actually finished it.

Yes, you read that correctly.   I am going to attempt to review a book that I haven’t finished reading. Hold onto your hats.

The book is Mindtouch by M. C. A. Hogarth, the first book in the Dreamhealers Duology and I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley.  It was pitched as a “light, fluffy, asexual sci fi romance”.  A LIGHT, FLUFFY, ASEXUAL, SCI-FI ROMANCE! Honestly, how could I not take up that offer?!  And I have decided to review it now because it is very, very, very long and I’m enjoying it.  Therefore, I don’t want to quash my enjoyment of the novel by rushing through it to fit a review date.  So odd all round, really.  Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

Seersana University is worlds-renowned for its xenopsychology program, producing the Alliance’s finest therapists, psychiatric nurses and alien researchers. When Jahir, one of the rare and reclusive Eldritch espers, arrives on campus, he’s unprepared for the challenges of a vast and multicultural society… but fortunately, second-year student Vasiht’h is willing to take him under his wing. Will the two win past their troubles and doubts and see the potential for a once-in-a-lifetime partnership?  

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Now isn’t that cover just delightful? The promise of a light, fluffy, asexual romance between a skunky-centaur thing and a super-tall, mood-leeching empath.  Brilliant.  This is full-on sci-fi with an original, complex world, so I won’t go into too much detail, except to say that Jahir (the tall one) and Vasiht’h (the four-legged one) end up as room mates at an intergalactic medical school for intergalactic psychiatrists.  The two lads form a friendship as Jahir comes to terms with living on a thriving university campus while being a reclusive introvert with the ability to read people’s moods if they get too close; and Vasiht’h tries to figure out where he wants to go in life and what career he should pursue against the high expectations of his large family.  In the meantime, the two friends become the staunch allies of a group of young children confined to the nearby hospital with serious illnesses.

I have been reading (off and on) since the beginning of February and I’m still only 31% of the way through.  At this rate, I won’t be finished til the end of the year, and that’s if I really put a singular focus on this book to the exclusion of my other reviews! But I am really enjoying this book. It has a gentle pace and a focus on exploring the characters.  It has a complex world with a multitude of species (both organic and genetically engineered) and a plethora of social rules to engage with.  Then there’s the philosophical discussions between the two main characters and the possibilities that these give rise to.

Essentially, I think this is a deeply thought-out piece of work and I don’t want to ruin what has been so far a satisfying and unusual reading experience by putting pressure on myself to finish it within a certain timeframe.  If you are looking for something totally different in the sci-fi sphere – something that is character-driven and concept-focused – then I encourage you to give Mindtouch a try.

Until next time,

Bruce