Tag Archives: history

Wellcome Book Prize Blog Tour

As you know I usually only feature fiction books on acrimereadersblog. I don’t read an awful lot of non-fiction. However there are some exceptions to this, and The Butchering Art was one. Author Lindsey Fitzharris was talking at the York Literature Festival but unfortunately I was unable to attend. So when I was invited to take part in the Blog Tour for the Wellcome Book Prize I jumped at the chance to read a copy of her book.

The Wellcome Book Prize celebrates the best new books that illuminate our encounters with health and medicine. The Butchering Art tells the story of Joseph Lister. In the 19th Century operating theatres were known as ‘gateways to death’ over half the people who had surgery died on the table. Lister was one of the first to believe that germs caused death and that antiseptic could kill them. This was a shocking claim in an era where surgeons didn’t even bother washing their hands before cutting people open! With lots of graphich detail, The Butchering Art is a fascinating tale of Victorian hospitals, where the cleaners were paid more than the surgeons.

The following extract gives a flavour of the book which is available on amazon.

Lister escaped many of the dangerous medical treatments that some of his contemporaries experienced while growing up, because his father believed in vis medicatrix naturae, or “the healing power of nature.” Like many Quakers, Joseph Jackson was a therapeutic nihilist, adhering to the idea that Providence played the most important role in the healing process. He believed that administering foreign substances to the body was unnecessary and sometimes downright life-threatening. In an age when most medicinal concoctions contained highly toxic drugs like heroin, cocaine, and opium, Joseph Jackson’s ideas might not have been too wide of the mark. Because of the household’s dearly held principles, it came as a  surprise to everyone in the family when young Lister announced that he wanted to be a surgeon— a job that involved physically intervening in God’s handiwork. None of his relations, except a distant cousin, were doctors. And surgery, in particular, carried with it a certain social stigma even for those outside the Quaker community. The surgeon was very much viewed as a manual laborer who used his hands to make his living, much like a key cutter or plumber today. Nothing better demonstrated the inferiority of surgeons than their relative poverty. Before 1848, no major hospital had a salaried surgeon on its staff, and most surgeons (with the exception of a notable few) made very little money from their private practices. But the impact a medical career might have on his social and financial standing later in life was far from Lister’s mind when he was a boy. During the summer of 1841, at the age of fourteen, he wrote to his father, who was away attending to the family’s wine business, “When Mamma was out I was by myself and had nothing to do but draw skeletons.” Lister requested a sable brush so that he could “shade another man to shew the rest of the muscles.” He drew and labelled all the bones in the cranium, as well as those of the hands, from both the front and the back. Like his father, young Lister was a proficient artist— a skill that would later help him to document in startling detail his observations made during his medical career.

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The Unquiet Dead by Ausma Zehanat Khan – a review BLOG TOUR

I was delighted to receive a copy of The Unquiet Dead from No Exit Press and be part of the blog tour for this interesting novel by Ausma Zehanat Khan.

The Unquiet Dead is a novel that almost has two halves, although they are inextricably linked. It’s difficult to review without using clichés but there really is no other word to describe the story other than powerful. I didn’t skip through the book desperate to find out the end as I so often do with stories. This was a novel I had to read slowly both in order to keep the large number of characters and situations straight in my head, but also because of the incredibly emotional prose that was written.

In The Unquiet Dead Toronto Detective Rachel Getty is asked by her boss Esa Khattak to look into the seemingly accidental death of Christopher Drayton who was found dead at the bottom of Scarborough Cliffs. Usually the cases that the team handle are related to crimes against minorities so she is unsure why they are involved.  However Rachel is happy that she is being included after having faced issues within some of the other teams she has worked for. When the detectives discover that Christopher Drayton may have been living under an assumed name she soon realises that the case is a lot more complicated than first seen. The second story focuses on the atrocities in Srebrenica during the 1995 massacre and we are given insight into what happened from the eyes of young boys living through it.

Whilst I would definitely recommend this novel, for me the actual detectives were rather flat. For some reason personally I didn’t get a whole lot of feeling about them and felt it was a little ‘off’. Rachel is a young woman yet despite having a good job continues to live with parents she doesn’t really like which seemed a bit strange. It almost felt that too much had been shoehorned into the book. There was a lot of description of the atrocities, which were then tempered with detailed background of the characters (often the issue with debut novels when the author wants to tell us everything).

Yet despite this slight issue, I did enjoy the story. It was interesting to learn about a period of history that although it happened in my lifetime I have to confess to knowing little about. I enjoyed the writing style and felt despite the heavy topic it was not a hard read. 

I would thoroughly recommend this novel especially if you enjoy learning about history during your reading.


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The Baedeker Murders by Julian Cole – a review

I suppose I should start by announcing a declaration of interest – I love York and am very lucky to live in such a wonderful city. It also makes me rather biased to anything that is York based, so my latest read, The Baedeker Murders did have a slight starting advantage!

The Baedeker Murders is the first novel I’ve read by local author Julian Cole, and he kindly sent me a copy. The book starts off in the aftermath of a bombing raid on York. It then moves to the present day where Maximillian is visiting York in order to apologise for his role in the bombings during the second world war. Unfortunately things don’t go to plan, and a murder is committed.

I thought this book was very enjoyable. The writing walks you through the city of York and gives a great feel for how things would have been during the war, and how they are now. The impressive York Minster takes centre stage, and is the backdrop for the whole of the novel.

The book flits between World War II and modern day. However to me there almost seemed to be two separate elements and I felt that they could almost have been two individual stories. That of the elderly veterans who were trying to come to terms with their past actions, and a more modern day crime involving the two main protagonists, the Rounder brothers. One is a policeman, the other a Private Investigator who is accused of murdering a women he had a one night stand with.

I also felt that some of the scenes were a bit rushed. For example two people falling into a one night stand in the middle of the day after drinking half a bottle of wine didn’t ring true with me, but maybe that just shows my lack of imagination. There seemed almost too many things goings on, the book covers war crimes, conscientious objectors, obsessive partners, teenage pregnancy, dieting, alcoholism, affairs, rape, even dog napping. It all ties up at the end but it does take a bit of concentration.

All the different themes meant that it was a very fast paced book that I read in only a couple of sittings. I really enjoyed the descriptions of the city, and it was fascinating to hear about York in war time. I had not heard of these raids before, so of course I accessed my external memory and Wikipediad them to check they were real. They were the most destructive raids ever felt by York. Apparently the church of St Martin-le-Grand on Coney Street, still has a stained glass window representing the church burning after a bomb fell.

This is the third book written by Julian Cole and all include the Rounder brothers, and I believe are based in York so I’ll keep an eye out for them. A history lesson rolled into a good story is always a winner with me.

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