Tom Palmer writes children's books for Puffin. His published titles include Foul Play, in the Football Detective series, and The Real Thing, in the Football Academy series. His next book - Off Side (May 2010) - is about fair trade. Fair trade in people, following the trials of a young Ghanaian footballer who is exploited by an unscrupulous agent. Fair trade in chocolate, based in a cocoa farming community in Ghana. It is also being made into an opera. In this post Tom writes about two books by Jed Mercurio.
Tom Palmer on Ascent and Bodies by Jed Mercurio
My wife's uncle – Steve – was coming to us for Christmas. We get on pretty well. This September I did some work in a school in Alexandria and, afterwards, had three days in Cairo with him. He is fascinated by things like the pyramids and space travel. He's obsessed with JFK. In Egypt the local people we got to know called him Mr Steve.
I wanted to get Mr Steve a good Christmas present, seeing as he would be at our house on Christmas morning. I'd read a review of a book called Ascent by Jed Mercurio a year ago and had always meant to get it for him. The review said it was about a Russian cosmonaut who had begun his career as a fighter pilot. I thought Mr Steve might like that. I ordered the book from Amazon. It came a few days after me and my family got back from the Roald Dahl museum in Buckinghamshire. I'd been doing some work there too. While at the museum, I found out more about Dahl being a fighter pilot in WW2. And I read his memoir, Going Solo. All about his aerial adventures.
So when Ascent arrived I had a little look at it, reading it carefully, not bending the pages, so it would still look new when Mr Steve opened it.
Ten pages in, I bent the spine firmly. I wanted this book. This book was mine.
Ascent is a novel about Yefgenii Yeremin, a fighter pilot who took on the Americans in the Korean War. The mid-air battle passages are amazing. Every pitch of the plane. Every shell fired. Every evasive manoeuvre. It is thrilling. Jed Mercurio was trained to be a pilot by the RAF.
The novel also traces Yeremin's life. His parents died when he was young. At his children's home he was bullied and viciously raped. He had no friends. He was remote with his children and wife. The novel then follows Yeremin to Russia's space race with the US. Yeremin ends up on the dark side of the moon. Kind of where he'd been all his life.
I was reading Ascent at a tricky time in my life. My wife was in hospital for a week. She had an operation that was pretty serious and could have brought really bad news, but didn't. I lived in the hospital while she was in there. Visiting when I was allowed, writing in the giant cafeteria when I wasn't. I walked the corridors of the hospital. I watched nurses and doctors talking, working, walking corridors themselves.
Once I'd finished Ascent I looked Jed Mercurio up on Amazon. There were two more books: Bodies, about a young doctor in a hospital; American Adulterer, about JFK. I ordered Bodies. It seemed to fit my life, like Ascent had. It came.
A new hospital doctor tells a story about medical procedure and negligence in a massive city hospital. A terrifying read, that I was glad I'd read after my wife was in there. The doctor makes mistakes that cost lives. The mistakes are covered up. He also saves lives, shows kindness, loves, hates, nearly loses his mind.
The novel is graphic about bodies. The parallel story to the medical events in the book is about the doctor's sex life. In one scene the doctor is having sex, trying to forget the horrors of the illness and death he sees daily. But when he holds the woman's breasts he feels a lump. Mercurio was once a hospital doctor.
Once I'd read Bodies I wanted more. More Mercurio. But his third novel, American Adulterer, is only available in hardback. So I ordered it from the library. Then I went to Amazon and bought a Fighter Pilot game for my PSP.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]