I was expecting more from Sea State by Tabitha Lasley (Fourth Estate, 4 February). I wanted to get a real insight into the lives of an offshore platform in the North Sea, but instead this book was more about the messy life of a 30-something writer who was running away from herself and trying to relive her youth. Escaping a very bad relationship, she decides to leave her comfortable job in London and move to Aberdeen to find out about the brutal and pressured life of the men who work offshore. She doesn’t really say why this life fascinates her but she starts a relationship with the very first man that she interviews. He is married with twins and they seem to fall for each other hard although they are totally incompatible. They plan for a future together but deep down inside she knows he will never leave his wife, which makes it even more depressing. She goes to bars and strip clubs to interview men who are passing through Aberdeen on their way home or to work.  The men are mainly working class and are doing it predominantly for the money. When they come off the rigs they need to depressurise after an intense period offshore, and that usually means with alcohol, sex and drugs. Many have affairs and complain about their insecure wives. We never hear from the women’s perspective, which is a shame. Life on the platforms can be harsh with very little regard for safety. The job just needs to get done no matter the weather or conditions. Accidents happen but very little is ever reported by the media. It’s a dying industry and profit is king. It’s an interesting subject that’s rarely been explored, and I would have liked to have heard more of these men’s personal stories and less of the author’s drug-taking.

A fascinating story of a student’s obsession with wanting to make things right but at the same time leaving behind a trail of destruction.”

The Unusual Suspect by Ben Machell (Canongate, 21 January), tells the fascinating story of Stephen Jackley, who decided to become a modern-day Robin Hood. He was despairing at the state of the world. The credit crunch was rapidly turning into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It was the disparity between rich and poor that Stephen had real issue with, and he wanted to help in some way to bridge that gap. He thought that robbing banks and giving the money to the poor would be a start. He saw the world firmly on the self-destruct button and he wanted to be able to stop it. Machell initially met Stephen for an interview for The Times after he was released from prison and realised that there was enough content for a book. With access to his diaries, notepads and hours of interviews, this book explores Stephen’s life from living with his mentally-ill parents in Devon to his thought processes as he meticulously plans his heists, to his eventual diagnosis of autism. This is a fascinating story of a student’s obsession with wanting to make things right but at the same time leaving behind a trail of destruction as well as unsuccessful robberies. He never wanted to hurt anyone, but with a lack of empathy and his focus solely on the righteousness of being Robin Hood he was unaware of the hurt and distress he caused to the innocent workers he pulled a gun on. His sadness and shame are palpable though when he realises he has mistakenly trashed the office of the NSPCC instead of a bank’s office. He writes to them promising to repay the cost of the damage. The Unusual Suspect asks the question, if he’d had an earlier diagnosis of autism would he have still done what he did? Would he have had a better understanding of himself and better coping mechanisms? All he wanted was to be normal, but our society made that impossible for him as he didn’t have the tools or support to help him. Instead he retreated into his own world and his reality soon slipped into fantasy before it all came crashing down on him. Machell writes sympathetically on his subject and you really don’t want him to get caught. What this book does is remind you that behind crime headlines there is usually a very human story, and what humanity needs to do is to see beyond the black-and-white of events and understand the greyness and nuances of human nature.

This powerful and lyrical book explores so many important issues; mental health, Brexit, our fragile environment and the beauty that is all around us if we look hard enough.”

Thin Places by Kerri ní Dochartaigh (Canongate, 28 January) is a beautiful memoir that touches on so many profound and moving subjects I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. Kerri grew up in Derry in the heart of the Troubles. Due to having a Catholic mother and a Protestant father she never felt she belonged and never felt safe and secure. She was bombed out of her house at the age of 11 and grew up witnessing some horrific events that hugely impacted on her. Grief and trauma have followed her everywhere. As she moves from city to city trying to outrun her emotions she begins to feel the pull back to Derry, a place that she vowed she would never live in again. She hopes that being near the source of her trauma will help her process all her grief.  She examines what the invisible but significant border between north and south means, the fear and anger that it manifested. Because of Brexit there is once again a threat of a hard border that she is scared will rip open old wounds. But the healing power of nature is never far away. She finds “thin places”, a place in between, a stillness. This powerful and lyrical book explores so many important issues; mental health, Brexit, our fragile environment and the beauty that is all around us if we look hard enough.

 

Finally, it was a pleasure to read the new edition of the wonderful Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay (Faber, 18 February).Along with a new introduction, Jackie tells us about the life of the Empress of the Blues. Bessie Smith was wildly successful but her personal life was hugely complex, full of racism and tumultuous relationships with men and women. As a young black girl growing up in Glasgow, Jackie Kay found someone she could identify with and find comfort through. This book is a mix of biography, fiction and poetry to bring to life of the exquisite Bessie Smith.

 

Sonia Weir is a contributing editor to Bookanista. She started the Ultimate Reads and Recommendations Facebook group in December 2018, which now has over 500 members from all over the world. The group is inclusive and aimed at every reader, no matter the books, authors or genre.
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