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review 2019-10-18 11:27
A coming of age story with a big heart
The Curious Heart Of Ailsa Rae - Stephanie Butland

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This is the first book I’ve read by the author and can’t compare it to her previous work, although I’ve noticed reviewers show plenty of love for The Lost for Words Bookshop, and I’m keen to check it out.

The plot of this book is easy to summarise, and the description is quite detailed. Ailsa was born with a congenital heart condition (Hypoplastic left heart syndrome) and has been ill (to a greater or lesser degree) all her life.  Now, when there isn’t much time left, she gets a new heart. The novel follows her journey to learn how to live her new life, which in her case is also akin to a coming of age story. Although she is 28, due to her circumstances she has lived a very sheltered life, always protected by her mother, her aunt, and her friends, and now she has to face lots of challenges.

The author chooses an interesting way of telling the story. The bulk of the story is narrated in the third-person, although exclusively from Ailsa’s point of view, and alternates between the “now” of the story, and what was going on in Ailsa’s life a year ago. Some readers complained about the jumps in timeline. I did not find them too confusing (the timeframe was clearly stated, and it was easy to tell from the content as well), and those chapters did add some perspective on Ailsa’s situation. Because we meet her just before her operation, this device works as a way of letting us know what her life was like before, and also helps us understand some of the difficulties she faces now. I wasn’t sure all of the chapters set in the past added new information or were particularly significant, but they didn’t slow down the pace of the story either.

Apart from the third person narrative, we can also “hear” Ailsa’s narrative in the first-person thanks to her blog. She has a blog where she had been writing about her illness and the difficulties of being on a transplant waiting list, and we get access to some of her posts.  The book also includes her e-mails and text exchanges with some of the other characters. These provide us with a different perspective on the events, even with the caveat that blogposts are written to be published and are not spontaneous pouring of one’s heart (well, most of the time), and we get to hear from other characters as well. This is the third book I’ve read recently featuring a blogger as one of the main characters, so there seems to be a trend. The most curious part of it, in this case, is that Ailsa seems to be otherwise pretty disconnected from some aspects of everyday life (she does not know Seb, the young actor she meets, although he is well-known, and seems oblivious to much of what is shown on UK television, for example). One of the particular characteristics of her blog, though, is that she asks her readers to participate in polls that inform her decisions and the way she lives her life. Although in some cases the decisions are pretty neutral (choosing a name for her new heart, for example), others are more fundamental, and there’s much discussion about that throughout the book.

As for the characters… I liked Ailsa, although I agree with some comments that say she seems much younger than she is. I have mentioned above that the book, at least for me, reads like a coming-of-age-story, and although she’s gone to university and had a boyfriend (and there’s a story of loss and grief there as well), there’s much of normal life that she has not experienced and that explains why there is much growing up she still needs to do. She is childlike at time, stubborn, selfish, she lacks self-confidence, and struggles between her wish to grow up (she insists on sticking to the plan of living independently) and her reluctance to take responsibility for her own life (she is so used to living day to day and not making long-term plans that she uses her blog and the polls as a way to avoid ultimate responsibility). I loved her mother, Hailey, who can be overbearing and overprotective, but she is strong and determined, cares deeply for her daughter and has sacrificed much for her (even if she finds it difficult to let go now),  and I felt their relationship was the strongest point of the novel. I was not so convinced by Seb, her love interest, and their on-off relationship, although it adds another dimension to Ailsa’s experience, seemed too unrealistic. Don’t get me wrong, he is handsome, a successful TV actor, and he is interested in her from the beginning, and yes… it reads like a very young and idealised romantic fantasy, so it might work in that sense, but as a character… What I liked about his part of the story was the acting background and the references to the Edinburgh Fringe. We only know Lennox through Ailsa’s memories and some of the chapters set in the past, and he is the other side of the coin, the one for whom luck run out too soon. This highlights the randomness of events and it makes more poignant the plight of so many people waiting for transplants. The efforts to keep his memory alive and make it count ring true.

The book is set in Edinburgh and I enjoyed the setting (although I’m only a casual visitor) and the references to the weather and the location. There are some local words and expressions used through the novel; although I cannot judge how accurate they are (the author is not Scottish although has done her research). I particularly enjoyed the Tango lessons and the setting of those above a pub.

The writing flows well and although in some ways the book is a light and gentle read (the romance is behind closed doors, and despite the talk of illness and hospitals, the descriptions of symptoms and procedures are not explicit or gore), it deals in serious subjects, like chronic illness, transplants (and it debates the matter of how to increase organ donations by changing it to an opt-out policy and removing the right of relatives to overrule the desires of a loved one), parental abandonment, grief, mother-daughter relationships, side effects of medication, popularity and media coverage of famous people, fat shaming… Although some of these topics are treated in more depth than others, I felt the novel dealt very well with the illness side of things, and it opened up an important debate on organ donations. As I said, I also enjoyed the mother-daughter relationship, and the fact that Ailsa becomes her own woman and grows up. I do love the ending as well.

This is a novel with a likeable main character who has had to live with the knowledge that she might not grow to be an adult, waiting for a miracle (unfortunately the miracle requires somebody else’s death, which deals sensitively in some very important topics, and is set in wonderful Edinburgh. I loved Ailsa’s mother and although some aspects of the novel work better than others, in my opinion, the quality of the writing and the strength of the story makes it well-worth reading. And yes, it is a heart-warming story (forgive the pun)! I’ll definitely be checking out more of the author’s books.

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text 2019-08-26 20:35
Book Haul

I arrived back home knackered and probably won't stay up late but thought I'd share a picture of the combined book haul including the books I picked up while exploring the city with Lillelara last weekend and the goodies I have picked up this weekend. 




The purple volume at the bottom are a collection W. H. Auden's poems, which I have been hoping to get to since reading Polly Clark's book Larchfield with my library book club (we disagreed on the book, of course, but I really liked it).

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text 2019-08-25 00:41
Edinburgh ... Update # 1

Not a lot of pictures as I could not be bothered taking pictures of "hoards" of people. 


In addition to people catching the last days of the Festival, we also had a rugby game in town today (Scotland beat France. Yay!), so there were even MORE people. (The game was sold out.)


Anyway, despite overflowing trains, delays, cancellations, and literally the worst train journey I have had in ages, I got to drop my bags and head over to see the first of the three performances by Stephen Fry. 


This started with him coming on stage to much applause and saying "Oh, stop it. Stop it, please. Oh, you've stopped." followed by a completely unrehearsed rendition of Happy Birthday by the entire Festival Hall (also full to the rafters). It was really moving.

I only hope it really was his birthday today.


He did well.


I had no idea what to expect, but what it ended up being was SF sitting in a comfy chair and turning into a storyteller.



Unfortunately for me, I've read Mythos and listened to his audiobook narration, and the show was basically an abridged version of the book. 

The lady next to me loved it, but she had not read the book (and was barely aware of it), and from hearing other people's comments at the show (all of whom seemed to love it), it seemed like a confirmation of what I thought about the book: I love the concept and loved the way he tells the stories, ... but if you're familiar with the Greek myths it is likely to become a bit repetitive and, well, too simplified. 


Again, no criticism on Mythos (or Heroes for that matter) as I think the idea behind both books is fabulous, especially as an introduction for people to the material. 

But if it weren't Stephen Fry narrating it, I am not sure I would want to sit through another two sets of two and a half hours each of re-tellings of Greek myths.


There. I said it. 


I really needed a stretch after the performance. And a coffee. And on my way to what looked like a cafe, I got sidetracked and ended up in a very light-hearted production by an unknown-to-me group (which is what makes the Festival so special) of "Tally Ho, Secret Several!". 


This was pretty much as described by the flyer:


"Spoof of Enid Blyton’s famous adventure book series The Secret Seven. Join this unruly bunch of intrepid explorers as they solve the most puzzling mystery their secret society has ever seen. There will be intrigue, danger and lashings of ginger beer in this high-energy, nostalgic, tongue-in-cheek comedy. Will they ever discover what was in the old man’s mysterious sack? Can they fight off the beastly competition from the Famous Five? Why do Barbara’s rock buns keep getting bigger? Is anyone going to ask them why, for a children’s society, they all look suspiciously adult?"


I really liked it. It was well-produced and so much fun to watch.


However, the best performance of today was Frances Barber in "Musik" (Playbill Review here and Guardian Review here).


Imagine a musical cabaret based on a morphed version of Ab Fab's Eddi and Pat, with more Pat, than Edwina, ... and now add an over-done German accent and pop-music penned by the Pet Shop Boys. Oh, and the whole thing was set in an old, mirror-clad circus tent:


The story of Billie Trix as performed by Barber was fantastic. Her performance of the song Soup (written, as are all of the songs in this piece, by the Pet Shop Boys) brought the house down in hysterics - it's the story of how Billie Trix, when she was Warhol's muse, inspired him to a certain piece of art. ;)

I cannot remember the last time I actually cried with laughter before this.


There were serious notes in this, too, of course, as with any great musical cabaret, but in the end, it was a very funny and very moving piece performed by a fantastic actress. I'm a big Frances Barber fan (which is why the ITV version of Christie's A Murder is Announced will always be a little special for me...even if they played fast and loose with the underlying book), so when I found this one in the programme - a huge piece of luck as there are THOUSANDS of performances during the Festival - I just had to go.

I am so glad I did.


I have more performances lined up for tomorrow and Monday. Starting early tomorrow with a play that was - apparently - inspired by Mrs Dalloway. We'll see. 


This was the George Street festival area tonight (around 11pm). This is not the busiest part of town. These beer gardens all along the street are one of the quieter parts of the Festival, leading up - at the very end of the street - to the Book Festival area, which in itself takes up the entire area of the Charlotte Square Gardens.

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text 2018-08-26 22:28
The Sunday Post: The Last of the Fringe and Soup!



After the rained out weekend at the Edinburgh Festival last week, I needed to go back to it yesterday because there was a show I just could not miss: Simon Callow starring in De Profundis, a performance of Oscar Wilde's letter to "Bosie" (Lord Alfred Douglas) which he wrote while infamously imprisoned in Reading Gaol. 



I've seen Callow perform before, so I knew this was going to be pretty good. However, this was my first experience of this particular piece and my introduction to De Profundis (which I re-read in full on the train back home), followed by a little research into the letter.


All I'm saying is that Bosie was a little shit.


Back to the performance...I loved it. It was very moving and while there were the typical Wilde puns, the title of the letter truly reflects the tone of it: Wilde's insights into his past relationship with Bosie as well as his reflections on his own character. A Simon Callow very much managed to release that distressed, angry, and yet loving and forgiving soul that Wilde confined to his own words.    


Afterwards I saw one other show and went for a stroll, but I was just too occupied by Wilde's letter to really pay much attention to any of the other performances. And with that, this year's Festival is over for me. It was fun to see that the crowds turned out well for the last Festival weekend, tho. 


Seriously, check the number of people in the pictures. This is what I mean by the town being "busy" during the festival period:



Anyway, today brought a day full of rain and cold weather so I spent most of the day wrapped in a warm jumper and enjoying books and tea...I came across a lovely little collection of Wilde's shorter stories while wandering around the Book Festival yesterday. (It contains The Canterville Ghost which I have now earmarked for the Ghost square on my Halloween Bingo Card!)


Oh, yes, and because it has turned quite chilly today, I made some soup. :D Nothing fancy, just some very simple vegetable and pasta and veggie pieces (which would obviously work just as well with chicken).



Happy Sunday!

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text 2018-08-24 22:47
The Adventure of the Soaked Enthusiast

I'm a bit late with posting this but I did not want to let any more days pass by without providing that little commentary on my adventures in Edinburgh last weekend. 


As mentioned in a previous post, I started the weekend with gin tasting / cabaret event, which was ok but nothing really to shout about other than that the singers were really good. The gin...well, it was ok, and it was something new to try. 


The other events I went to last weekend, tho, were much better:


Wired was a play put on at a venue hosted by the Army and focused on a young soldier being traumatised by witnessing the explosion of an IED. The play was superbly performed by three actresses who kept the small audience enraptured all the way through the MC's experience of PTSD. It was thought-provoking and moving, and not something I would have expected (especially given the venue). I didn't find the ending believable, but it did make one think. Again, it was one of the performances that I probably wouldn't have picked if I had read the description properly...but that proved to be a rather good find.


That is kinda what happens at The Festival...you sort of stumble into things because there are thousands of performances through out the month of August and it is almost impossible to remember or list everything that looks interesting in the programme.


The highlight of my trip, however, was a Sherlock Holmes Walking Tour.


Now, you may ask what our favourite consulting detective has to do with Edinburgh? Well, the tour wasn't so much about Sherlock Holmes as it was about his creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, and he was born in Edinburgh (just around the corner from where I made my HQ for the weekend). There was, until very recently, even a statue of Holmes to mark the spot - as the original house had been torn down to make way for a roundabout. This year, the statue was missing, too, a victim to further roadworks. I hope they put it back soon! It belongs in Picardy Place.

Sherlock Holmes statue (as and where I found it last year)

(This is the picture I took last year in Picardy Place.)


Let me say this, too: The tour started at 10:30 and lasted for near enough 2 hours ... in the pouring rain. And I mean, rain heavy enough to keep many festival-goers off the street. Except, of course, for a small group of 11 "enthusiasts" (i.e. nutters) who got happily soaked following this guy through town:



He was a great guide!


We started at the Royal Mile with a history of Edinburgh, then went to Edinburgh Uni - the medical school of it - and spent some time at the med quad, the inner quadrant that leads to the School of Anatomy. Here he told about ACD's childhood, his family, his school days, and his father's drinking problem, Burke and Hare and general body-snatching, ... as well as a bit of history of the university. 
(The Anatomy School is straight ahead.)
Then we went to George Sq. where ACD and his mother lived when his father was institutionalised, and just when ACD went on an unheard-of sabbatical from uni to earn money on a whaler in the Arctic. Much of what the guide told here was new to me - about ACD nearly drowning on a few occasions and earning the nickname "the great northern diver".
The last leg was a walk over to the Old Infirmary, where ACD worked with Dr. Joseph Bell. This was pretty cool, too. And this also is where the topic of Sherlock Holmes comes in because Dr. Bell, a pioneer of forensic pathology, was ACD's inspiration for the detective. He also was the model for almost every depiction of Holmes we have:
The guide threw in a bit of interactivity there were he demonstrated Bell's method of observation. I didn't know about Bell's involvement in the Ripper case and that his report (indicating the identity of the Ripper) was received by the Met but then mysteriously disappeared?
There were also mentions of our guide about ACD potentially having accompanied Bell on the investigation. 
This is a part I want to investigate further. It sounded a bit too fantastic to be true. Not that I doubt the guide - all of the other things he told were in line with what I had read - but it sounded too weird to not be known more widely.
So, this is a new likely rabbit hole that beckons. 
The tour overran, which meant I didn't have time to make it to Simon Callow's performance of Wilde in De Profundis. :(
But ... I am resolved to make another trip (just for the day) down tomorrow to catch Callow and a show by Katherine Parkinson, which I am excited about, too (but only found out about on Sunday).

Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain...but that didn't really stop anyone.

(Mercat Cross & St. Giles)

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