Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tuesdays Umbrellas of Intrigue

Today my co-blogger Red is discussing two medical dramas from PNW authors!

I recently read two well written new fiction books in the 'medical drama' category. (I may have made that genre up, but can't think how else to describe them. They aren't really thrillers or even mysteries, just have dramatic elements surrounding medical issue with some history thrown in.) The titles are A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, (2010) and Of Flesh and Blood (2010) by Daniel Kalla, a PNW writer. A word of warning – both books do involve a death of a child; not easy to contemplate but handled well and not the whole focus. The first one, A Fierce Radiance takes place mainly in New York City in the 1940s. It tells the previously un-explored (in fiction, to my knowledge) story of the development of penicillin. The author, Lauren Belfer, drew upon a great deal of research (the book was published over ten years after her previous work!**) into the circumstances of how the discovery of life-saving penicillin was finally produced and marketed to save a multitude of human lives. The author has stated that she was inspired by the family story of an uncle she never knew, who died as a child from some minor infection, during the long years when someone could be destroyed by a “cut on the knee.” She creates a likeable group of characters to surround the medical plot and even manages to get a mysterious death and a romance into the mix. Her main character is a feisty divorced woman with a son who is about 8, and who has a rising career as a photographer for Life magazine. Belfer does a nice job of mixing in real elements from that time period - popular culture, the Rockefeller Foundation where the research really took place, the outbreak of World War II and the effects on the home front, and details about the city. In the course of her job, Claire Shipley meets physician James Stanton and a relationship ensues. The murder of his sister, corporate intrigue involving her estranged father, and both of their involvements in national war efforts are among the complicated plot elements. I especially like her use of images that make the story memorable and unique, for example the frequent references to the early production of penicillin in the medical labs portrayed as glowing green substances in rows of bedpans and milk bottles (the cheapest most readily available vessels that would work.) There are of course some imperfections one could point out about this ambitious book but it is a darn good read, very engrossing and informative while reading. ** Lauren Belfer published City of Light in 1999 to much acclaim. Set in 1901 Buffalo NY, it also encompasses memorable characters set amongst a wide scope of historical details about Niagara Falls, electricity, and then Pres. McKinley. Of Flesh and Blood by Daniel Kalla is a similar book, yet there's a quite different tone or focus to it. It is more grounded in the present day, where a battle of ethics ensues at a Pacific Northwest privately funded medical center, similar to famous Children’s Hospitals that treat cancer and other serious diseases. This fictional facility is located near Seattle and draws the rich and famous, from all over, who require top-notch medical care. That’s also how they fund their policy of never refusing treatment to those who can’t pay. The novel has a lot of characters, and as one would expect when some of them are oncologists, a lot of death occurs. There’s also a subplot about one couple’s fertility and another about family intrigue and greed. This novel actually has two settings and sets of characters: the present day one and a historical one in alternating chapters. While certainly not an unusual plan for today's books, I did wish this book didn’t have quite so many characters to keep track of, especially since, other than the start of a new chapter, the reader has to adjust to an unnecessarily complicated leap to the historical plot of the hospital’s origins. Sorting out the relationships of the two clashing founding families became a bit tedious. However, this book is also an absorbing read and the narrative flows fairly well. The author is a real-life emergency room physician in Vancouver, so the medical details are quite – real— and maybe this book is not for the squeamish. He has written a number of other books with medical themes.

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