Posted in Book Review, Books I have read

Small Great Things – Jodi Picoult

Contemporary Fiction 4*s
Contemporary Fiction

It has been a while since I read one of Jodi Picoult’s books partly because she follows her tried and tested method, which once I’d read a few felt just a little too formulaic for me to fully enjoy. Typically there is a big event, a huge issue which naturally requires the reader to pick a ‘side’, a courtroom drama and a twist at the end, they also deal with huge issues, those that fortunately most of us don’t have to confront in our lives.

Small Great Things is no different but after a break of a few years, I enjoyed the story without the feeling that I’d read it before, albeit with a different issue at the heart. The big event is the tragic death of a baby, Davis just a couple of days old and had been born on the maternity ward where Ruth Jefferson is the only African-American on the staff of the small hospital. Brit and Turk are the baby’s parents and had met Ruth when she did the Davis’s initial checks after he was born. Ruth noticed a confederate flag tattooed on Turk’s arm shortly before he asked her to call her supervisor. The result of that chat was that a note was put on Davis’s notes stating that no African-Americans are to touch Davis. Ruth is hurt and annoyed, as well you can imagine, however when Davis stops breathing when she is the only one on duty she has to make a choice, does she resuscitate the baby or follow the order and leave him alone?

The story from there on in is told by Turk, a white supremacist, and Ruth, a widow and mother of the teenage Edison. We hear all about both their pasts which go some way to explaining how they reached where they are today. There is lots of information about them both but with a court case looming over the baby’s death I’d have to say that Ruth’s is far more prominent although Turk’s gave me insight to a world I have never encountered.

Jodi Picoult has clearly researched her subject matter and this is a book that makes you think, for me more about the difference between passive and aggressive racism. But here’s the crux of the matter, no matter how good the story is, I really don’t read to be preached at, and Ruth’s tale and the book’s message, is far from subtle. Ruth of course has led a blameless life and the subtext is that she’s only got her successful life by denying her colour and blending in, unlike her sister Adisa who is only too quick to point out the injustice in modern day America.

By the time we get to the courtroom, Turk conveniently being represented by a woman of colour while Ruth’s attorney is a young white American who has fought to take the first murder trial of her entire career, the drama hots up and despite being given another nudge to make sure I didn’t forget what the issue was, I have to admit I couldn’t stop turning the pages to find out how it was all going to turn out. Yes there was the twist and a touching ending.

There is no doubt at all that Jodi Picoult is an accomplished story-teller, the revelations about the characters that inhabit this book are well-paced, and if you want a book that makes you think, allows you to stand in another person’s shoes, her books are very appealing. Overall I really enjoyed Small Great Things, but although I like being challenged in my views, and I was by this book, I need a little more space to allow me to come to my own conclusion rather than having one imposed upon me.

Small Great Things will be published later this month and I was lucky enough to be given a copy by the publishers Hodder & Stoughton. This review is my unbiased thanks to them.

First Published UK: 22 November 2016
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
No of Pages: 512
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain #20Booksofsummer

Book 15

Non-Fiction 3*s

An alternately moving and exasperating memoir written by a woman who moved from childhood to adulthood during the lead up to World War I, this book published in 1933 uses her diaries and letters from that time to give us a picture of what the realities of war meant for a young woman of her generation.

The book opens with Vera’s desperation to go to Oxford despite her family’s, particularly her father’s objection to this course at odds with the opportunity to study being freely offered to her brother, Edward. It is exceptionally hard to picture a life of the fairly privileged, intelligent and inquisitive Edwardian young lady whose life was still mapped out by the strictures of the Victorian Era. Funny also to read her comparison to the young people of the day when she was writing this memoir who she viewed with envy for the freedom offered to them. Of course from my perspective the generation she envied for the easiness of their lives; the freedom to court without chaperones, to receive degrees even as women and to be employed despite being married, appears to be wildly exaggerated compared to the freedoms we have nowadays. This is just one example of why I’m glad I finally made time to read this book as it demonstrates how feminism wasn’t one wild gallop to get the vote, the struggle was long and incremental and yet women like Vera appreciated the progress made towards a better future.

The book covers Vera’s coming down from Oxford to join the VADs nursing in England, Malta and France throughout the war whilst she simultaneously worried about her brother and her friends fighting in the conflict which as the war progressed she began to hate with a vengeance for its waste of life at the behest of political masters. She saw through the treaties for the young to become heroes to give up their futures for egos. She also records one of the rarely recorded views of the older generation, those who had to live without servants for the first time in their lives, the men and women who had given their children to the fight both on the battlefields and to other war-work thereby forgoing the previous right to call on their unmarried daughters when required.

Following the end of the War Vera retakes her position at Oxford this time to study History rather than English becoming ever more interested in international politics which I’m regretful to report I found in the main a struggle to read as they referenced matters that my knowledge simply wasn’t great enough for me to fully appreciate. With my interest far more keen on the politics relating to women’s lives, this section wasn’t a complete right-off as the considerations proposed for women during the War were under attack following the conclusion of it – to have these put into wider context was enlightening.

My exasperation with the book was in part with her condescending tone which covered whole swaths of the population; the locals from her teens, those women who wanted to seize life rather than study or grieve, those who hadn’t worked through the war because they were too young, men, in general who weren’t her brother or her friend etc. etc. and whilst some of the earlier sections can be considered a faithful recording of her younger self, this continual holding herself up as a paragon of one whose life has been more meaningful than those that didn’t share her experiences, her political ambitions or her daily preoccupation with being taken seriously by everyone got a little wearing.

This is a huge book at over 600 wordy pages with parts, such as the experiences of nursing during the war that I found exceptionally interesting and poignant and those latter pages which detail her work with the League of Nations that frankly I found less so. That said, with a book full of detailed accounts of life before, during and after the war I felt that I truly put flesh on the bones of what I understood life to be like in the UK during this time and even more when right at the end of the book Vera and her friend Winifred take a tour of Europe to have a taste of what those nations lives looked like a decade after the war started compelling reading.

A worthwhile book to read and one that although this short review merely highlights a small proportion of its content, has broadened my knowledge of the time period, albeit for one section of society in particular. At times desperately sad and a reminder of quite what an entire generation went through in the hopes of forging a better future at others I was cheering Vera on with her ambition to make the world a better place. Sadly my overall feeling when I reached the end was discomfort as I couldn’t help but consider Vera’s hopes for peace were to be dashed with the Second World War already looming on the horizon at the time of publication.

First Published UK: August 1933
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages 640
Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir)
Amazon UK
Amazon US