The worst day of my life

(This is a post I wrote years ago but never published. There’s so much talk about anxiety recently, that I thought I’d publish it)

It was one of the most painful experiences of my life but I remember that I didn’t scream. I was in too much pain to waste energy screaming. My face was contorted with pain and confusion. And I was listening for a snap, because my arms and legs were doing their best to break their own bones, bending into crazy angles totally out of my control. And the pain was unbearable.

Many years have passed since that night and there have been quite a few contenders for “Worst day of my life” but its right up there at the top of the list. I’d been sick for about a year. I had an extreme case of Social Anxiety. I had to stop working. I hardly left the house. I couldn’t use public transport. Interactions with most people was excruciating.  I was attending a Mental Health Clinic, and the doctors I saw, were unfortunately awful; terribly misinformed and part of a very flawed mental health system.

I was never properly diagnosed. They were just chucking all kinds of pills at me. Each dose of medication had a zero positive effect and many terrible side effects. Some were almost worse than the illness they were supposed to be fix. One cursed me with blurred vision, stripping me of books, drawing, or TV, leaving me with little to distract me from my anxious thoughts.

Another pill counteracted the blurred vision but in turn made me restless. I say restless, like a say vinegar on an open wound is a little bit sore. It was a sickening restlessness. When you sat you had to stand and when you stood you had to walk and when you walked you wanted to sit again and when you sat again you’d just rock back and forth. You’ve seen it haven’t you? Well they’re not crazy people. They’ve just been given crazy medication. Update: I’ve just looked this up, and it has a name: Akathisia.

Next on the list was an injection to counteract the Akasthisia. But this one had a side-effect too. They don’t tell you that though. They don’t want to scare you. As it’s really bad and only happens to rare individuals.  So back to the attic…

My hand was the first to go, it started to bend forward at the wrist and I couldn’t get it back, then my whole arm twisted backward. My other arm had gone around my back and was doing its best to break. All my limbs started twisting and contorting. I had to use all my strength to stop my limbs from breaking themselves. It all happened so quickly. I’d collapsed onto the bed in a fight with myself, suddenly in a terrible horror movie.

After the initial shock, I dragged myself off the bed and somehow got down two flights of stairs, which isn’t easy when you’re busy trying to break all your major bones. I’d got to the phone and managed to dial 999 somehow but by the time someone answered I was just on the floor screaming with the phone dangling on its cord and I couldn’t manage to ask for an ambulance. The operator eventually hung up.

After maybe ten minutes it began to ease up. One of my brothers arrived home. I told him what had happened. He didn’t get it. And just looked at me as if I’d two heads.

I went back up to the attic to gather myself. Then my hand started twisting again. I shouted down the stairs ITS STARTING AGAIN. He ran up the stairs and when he saw me writhing around the floor doing my impression of Christie Brown going through an Exorcism, his jaw dropped and he turned white .

Our GP arrived very quickly. I was never happier to see a large syringe come out of a bag. Whatever he gave me stopped the side effect straight away. The next day, my medication was changed again. A month later, I voluntarily stopped all medication, and stopped attending the mental health clinic. Instead I started a very slow and long journey of accepting my condition and learning to cope with it. This acceptance led to a level of confidence that was enough to start my first job since I got sick, in a phone printing factory. My confidence grew, I got better jobs, I got on with the rest of my life. Social Phobia never fully went away, it just grew more manageable.  End of story.

Update: I’ve been looking this up again. And I’m pretty sure the medication was Mellaril. An extreme medication for Schizophrenia known to cause an “Acute Dystonic Reaction” which is what’s described above. NB: I had zero symptoms of Schizophrenia. I had a classic case of extreme Social Anxiety. Such was the state of mental health care in Ireland 20 years ago.

30 best Audiobooks out of 200

I recently listened to my 200th audiobook. I still read at every opportunity; I’ve read myself to sleep every night since I learned how to read. But when I am cleaning, tidying, ironing, gardening, walking etc, I listen to audiobooks. So these are 200 books I just never would have got to, had I not listened to them. I thought I’d mark this milestone with a top 30…

What makes a great audiobook?
All great audiobooks come from great books. It’s that obvious and simple. For some books the format just seems to work so well on audio. Others are improved by wonderful narrators. Sometimes the whole package just works so well as an audiobook. But first and foremost, they’re all great books to begin with.

Availability
I’ve switched between audible.co.uk and audible.com over the years. Unfortunately, some of these are only available on download from audible.com or as physical cds in the UK.


30. Freedom

  • Written by: Jonathan Franzen
  • Narrated by: David Ledoux

 

What do we love? Authenticity! Where do we love it? In books! Franzen is such a master at writing authentic characters & relationships. Similar to the theme in The Corrections, there’s a loose theme of freedom here. What’s it about? It doesn’t really matter with books like this. Like Roger Ebert so wonderfully put it, “It’s not what it’s about it’s how it’s about it”.  And how it’s about it is with great attention to detail and realism. Also great: Purity.

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29. Skagboys

If you try to set aside the cult status of Trainspotting, Skagboys is just as good as Trainspotting if not better. No one does dark and gritty as well as Irvine Welsh, and reading Skagboys was like being reunited with a bunch of old friends, even the scumbag friends, like Begbie… “The Problem is he’s mate an awe, wet ken ye dae”. Also great fun: A Decent Ride.

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28. Doctor Sleep

I grew up on King in my teenage years and then abandoned him after a spate of duds and a growing aversion to the paranormal. I’m glad I gave him another chance  (I’m sure he was bereft without my patronage) because he’s a more masterful storyteller than ever. Doctor Sleep is a sequel to The Shining and is a classic King tale of good against evil. The dark and gritty narration on this really makes it shine. Also amazing on audio: 11.22.83.

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27. Under The Skin

I thought the movie adaption of this book was a masterpiece; a beautiful work of modern art hiding inside a sci-fi flick. I broke with tradition for this one and got the book after seeing the movie, which really worked out as it stands on its own from the movie. They are like separate episodes that come from the same universe, a world where aliens visit earth to source their meat, a vegetarian allegory. Some very creepy vocal sounds make this stand out as an audiobook.

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26. We Need To Talk About Kevin

 

I don’t think this book needs any introduction. A teenage boy with the darkest of streaks ultimately sheds blood of the worst kind; the slaughter of the innocent. This well-crafted tale is told from the unique angle of a mother who never quite bonded with her son, and how her relationship with her offspring may or may not have created this monster.

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25. Dark places

Gone Girl was passable fun. But frivolous and fluffy compared to Dark Places. This is a rare thriller: a great story plotted around a mysterious murder, and rumours of witchcraft and satanism, yet the characters are so well-drawn and interesting, and it doesn’t just rely on a big reveal. You could take away the whodunnit and still have a fantastic character based book. And yes, that’s a coincidental two-in-a-row from narrator Lorelei King. Also Great: Sharp Objects.

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24. The Marriage Plot

Although I’ve added many new pets to my list of favourite authors, I’ve long considered Tartt, Franzen and Eugenides to be my own holy trinity of contemporary literary novelists. When The Marriage Plot was published Franzen and Eugenides had become so familiar, you’d be hard pushed to find much in the difference between them in how they handle their subjects. The setting is the same where it matters; the minutiae of how people connect to each other in a variety of relationships.

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23. Himself: A Novel

There wasn’t a huge selection of good Irish books available on audio for a few years, and then recently, I seemed to be listening to one after another. And this is a fine example brimming with divilment. There’s a small town with its small town ways. There are dark secrets in its past. There’s a lovable old lady who suffers no fools. Befuddled ghosts wander around scratching their heads, occasionally making themselves heard. Then there’s himself, Mahony; a handsome rogue who’s blown into town in search of his long lost mother. And of course, there’s a parish priest preaching against the belief in superstition, a hypocratic trope that never gets’s old.

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22. Dept. of speculation

 

The Dept. Of Speculation is a department of one; a recently married woman dealing with the raw grief of a cheating fucker of a husband. This is one of those short wonderfully compact books that manages to pack so much into so little. The kind of book that if you were to start highlighting great lines of droll humour, you’d end up highlighting the whole book.

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21. Into the Darkest Corner

I have a very low tolerance for psychological thrillers that use mental illness or neurological disease as a cheap plot device, and then get it so wrong; gaping plot holes, cringey cliches, and the reliance on some stupid twist at the end to make or break it. This book is a very rare beast in my experience. It deals with OCD and PTSD realistically, and not only as a contrived plot device and still manages to be a great thriller, and a total page turner. A very rare thriller in my experience.

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20. Into That Forest

This is a great story about two girls who end up spending four years in the wild after being adopted by two Tasmanian Tigers. Yes you read that right. It’s an unusual but well-told story. What particularly gives it a place on this list is how it’s told: by an old woman sitting by a fire, or if not exactly that, it was that kind of vibe, which works great as audio.

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19. Gargoyle

I’m often amazed at the volume of amazing books that you might never hear about and are so easy to miss. The premise of The Gargoyle is based around an old trope; is a character insane or has she actually {insert-impossible-fantastical-truth}. But that doesn’t take away from how great this book is. I was hooked from the start: a porn-star indulges in too much drink and drugs and crashes his car while hallucinating, then gets horribly burned alive in the car, which is described in great detail, and that’s just the first page, awesome stuff!

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18. Beatlebone

The premise alone is amazing. John Lennon trying to seek refuge on a small island he’s bought off the West Coast of Ireland. If you’re familiar with Kevin Barry’s craft, you won’t be surprised to hear that the writing in this is stunning. It also includes some hilarious dialogue. Some people complain that this book is a bit too strange for them, but life is strange! and this book captures something very real about life and its peculiarities. It really got under my skin and connected with me. I loved it.

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17. Me Talk Pretty One Day

The question here is which Sedaris book do I put in my list? The thing with David Sedaris audiobooks is they’re all great! His writing, which is mostly observations about his own life experiences are hilariously written. And they work so well on Audio read by the man himself. Particularly the chapters that are read in front of a live audience.  This is the first one I read and I think it’s a good place to start. Also great: Anything else by David Sedaris.

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16 – This Is How It Always Is

Some writers are great storytellers (Hello to Stephen King). Others are fantastic wordsmiths (Hey Kevin Barry), and then are many different ways to write a great book. Laurie Frankel is the kind of writer who is a very wise and observant of life on earth and just writes down her wonderful thoughts. In this case, it’s about a hectic young family, particularly the youngest boy who decides one day he wants to wear a dress. Frankel has very wise observations about sex, sexuality and sexual orientation in modern life. I loved the narration also because, like many great narrators, Gabra Zackman doesn’t overdo the performance. She sits in the background and lets the words do the talking.

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15. The Hearts Invisible Furies


I mostly know John Boyne from The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, next to that a title as grave as “The Heart’s Invisible Furies”, sounded like this was going to be a very serious read. But it turned out to be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, or listened to. Cyril’s father, sorry adoptive father, was one of the funniest characters ever, out of many in this book.

But what made it such a great book was that it wasn’t just a straight up comedy. Boyne was able to go from comedy (bordering on too farcical at times) to more serious and heartbreaking topics with great ease. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish.

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14. The Sisters Brothers

At the risk of sounding repetitive, there are many ways to write a great book; storytelling, plot, narrative, characters, realism, dialogue and prose. But there’s one factor authors sometimes forget: entertainment. Patrick deWitt never forgets that.  Every page (minute, whatever) in this tale of bickering assassin brothers set during the gold rush is high entertainment indeed and that is why I’ve yet to meet anyone who didn’t love this book. And there’s just something about that old Country & Western twang that totally rocks it on audio. Also great: Under Major Domo Minor.

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13.  Where’d You Go Bernadette

Comedy is a funny thing! I usually find that books written solely for the comedy section are anything but funny. I really didn’t like the comedy-book-of-the-moment at the time: “The 100 year old man who climbed out of the window”. But Where’d You Go, Bernadette was, for me, genuinely laugh out loud funny from the very start. No long drawn out back story, or plodding character development. Just bam! Straight into it. A few pages in and there’s a whole world of hilarious stuff going on. This is one big passive aggressive note against the type of people who might write passive aggressive notes. Great fun, if a little far-fetched in places, but it’s almost in sitcom territory, so we can give it some comedic licence. Highly recommended.

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12. My Struggle

I usually avoid books with numbers in the title like a plague. But for a while, everyone seemed to be talking about the six-part series My Struggle. As it tends to do, hype had set my expectations so high I expected magic to flow from the first page. It took me a while to warm to it. To get it. But then I was hooked. My Struggle is a semi-metafictional / autobiographical masterwork dissecting the minutiae of human interactions and everyday life, somehow written in a way that makes a task as mundane as washing tiles in a shower seem fascinating. There is one flaw in the audio. It’s all a bit too serious; I’m sure there’s more than an element of tongue-in-cheekiness to Knausgaard’s writing.

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11. Boxer Beetle

What I love about Ned Baumann books is that on top of the usual great story, wonderful characters, and fantastic writing there’s always an insight into strange and interesting topics with a good mix of fact and fiction. This time we’ve got boxing, eugenics, beetles, nazi memorabilia, and a disease that makes you smell like fish. What’s not to love? Also great: Glow.

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10. A Little Life

There’s nothing little about listening to 33 hours of a life filled with pain. But the writing is something to behold. A lot of people find the abuse in this book too much, which is fair enough, each to their own. But don’t let anyone tell you this is torture porn. Anyone can write about gore, abuse, and torture, whereas Yanagahari handles it with such deft, compassion and empathy, and delves so deeply into the core of the human psyche that it not only justifies the heartbreaking pain, but it makes it a vital part of the balancing act. Some of the more endearing relationships would be bordering on trite and sentimental if not on the flip side of such anguish. The beauty of the book would never be able to shine if it weren’t set against such a dark background. And she’s such an amazingly talented and clever writer. In even slightly lesser hands, it would have felt like angsty torture porn but in her hands, it never did, not even slightly.

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9. People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman

Of all the non-fiction books I’ve read in the last few years, the fantastically titled  People Who Eat Darkness and Henrietta Lacks really stood out at as unique. Then I discovered they were part of a sub-genre known as Literary Nonfiction or Creative Nonfiction. It’s basically non-fiction that employs all the techniques that fiction writers use to bring a story to life; plot arcs, character development, slow reveals, well considered structure etc. This is the story of an English Woman who vanished from the streets of Tokyo.  There are many fascinating strands to the story; the hostess culture in Japan, the exploration of how grieving parents are expected to act in the eye of the public, and of course the main crime itself.

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8. 1Q84

This was initially released as three books. But I went straight for the complete edition. At almost 47 hours long, it’s a whopper of a book. Murakami books are a bit of an acquired taste so I’d recommend trying a few of his shorter books first. Maybe Kafka on the Shore or Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. All Murakami books are quite metaphysical, dreamlike and surreal but there is a consistent logic to the crazy events that unfold. 1Q84 is a masterpiece. 

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7. The Goldfinch

I’m often a bit stumped when asked what a book I’m reading is about, it’s often irrelevant. I could say The Goldfinch is about a guy who steals a painting of a goldfinch after an explosion in an art gallery, and the consequences that follow. But of course the goldfinch painting is a bit of a MacGuffin. What is this book really about? … it’s about everything: love, loss, death, friendship, art, marriage, morals, parenting, growing up, mental health, addiction, hedonism… life!

Tartt, Eugenides, and Franzen really excel at taking a bunch of interesting and believable characters to tell a story that itself is just a backdrop to the broad canvas of life. Their novels are always an amazing experience to read. The books that come before and after always pale in comparison. And The Goldfinch is no different. A masterpiece.

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6. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

This is a fascinating book, perfectly marrying scientific fact with the amazing story of one woman and her immortal cells which are still growing today in thousands of labs all over the world. The author, Rebecca Skloot becomes a vital part of the story as she takes the angrily uninformed Lacks family by the hand and drags them from a spate of superstition and misinformation that has plagued the family, through to a more appreciative understanding of the contribution their mother’s cells have made to the world.

The idea of reading a scientific history of cell culture doesn’t exactly sound thrilling, but it is – this is an amazing (true) story, wonderfully told with a bunch of lively characters. And the audiobook is beautifully narrated too which really brought it to life.

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5. I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan

This is the perfect audiobook. I just couldn’t imagine reading this on paper when I can listen to Alan Partridge himself. Seven hours of comedy gold. Also great: Alan Partridge: Nomad.

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4. The Lesser Bohemians

A lot of the books on this list have been tumbling around in my head as favourites for years now, but this is a very recent listen and it’s one of the best audiobooks I’ve heard. After reading her fantastic debut (on Kindle) I didn’t think her kind of writing would translate well as audio. Firstly: I was wrong her spiky abrasive writing works so well read out loud. Secondly; there’s a lot more dialogue in this making it a lot more accessible and easier on the brain than A Girl is A Half-Formed Thing, and Thirdly when I heard how perfectly the narrater nailed this I checked out who it was and of course it’s yer only woman, Eimear McBride!

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3. The Time Traveler’s Wife

This seems like a bit of a marmite book. Some people seem to hate it, some people love it. I adored it. Up to a point I was really enjoying it, and then about halfway through various events struck a chord with me and I was completely gripped emotionally. This is a book about the trials and tribulations that can test relationships. It just so happens that one of the tribulations in this relationship is that Henry accidentally time travels now and then. It’s amazing how made Niffenegger made such an impossibly convoluted story so astonishingly real.

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2. Blood Meridian

The last two books in this list are pretty close in terms of quality but so different in content and tone. This is a very dark book with extreme graphic violence. It’s the grimmest account of cowboys and Indians you’re likely to read. Cormac McCarthy is such an amazing writer and he’s in fine form in the masterpiece, while Richard Poe’s gravelly voice of despair is a perfect match. Have a listen to the sample.

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1. When God Was a Rabbit

In a nutshell this is a book about love in all its various forms (including falling in love with the book itself if that’s possible). Now that’s all well and good to write down. Maybe. But I was in a car with a friend from work recently and got talking about this list, and my potential number one, and found myself mumbling that it was about love and then realising how naff it sounded out loud. It’s a hard one to explain, especially out loud man-to-man for some strange reason. I think at its heart it’s a wonderfully nostalgic trip into the wonders of childhood friendship in a way that I haven’t seen captured elsewhere. It’s funny and heartwarming and full of lovable quirky characters. It’s mostly about Elly who has a pet rabbit called God, her wonderful friend Jenny Penny, and Elly’s brother Joe. What just about pips it to number one is that it’s so perfectly narrated by Sarah Winman, from the children’s voices, which is so hard for an adult to get right, right up to adulthood. It’s such a perfect little complete package, that it’s hard to separate the audio from the text. It’s simply the perfect audiobook.

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The Essex Serpent

Happy International  Woman’s day – here’s a great book featuring a strong independent woman. It’s unfortunate that such women still need to be labelled so.  Strong independent men are just called: men.

Like a lot of great novels, The Essex Serpent is one big MacGuffin. The Goldfinch is not about a stolen goldfinch painting, Jaws is not about a shark (book not movie), and The Essex Serpent, is not about a water-lurking beast. It’s about a cast of wonderfully realised characters, and how their various relationships overlap, how they navigate unrequited love in its various forms and remain true to their own vocations. At the heart of the book is a person called Cora Seaborne, who is determined to cast aside the shackles of woman and just be. She has no time for the expectations of femininity and is devoted to the pursuit of curiosity.

Cora has recently been set delirious with the freedom widowhood has granted her to explore the world’s curiosities, though bereaved widow is another label she refuses to wear. Her travels take her to Essex where rumoured sightings of a serpent have rattled a small parish and the local vicar sets to banish serpentine superstitions and maintain faith in the more established Christian superstitions (a trope that never fails to amuse me).

The basic* plot is strongly bolstered by an array of characters which doesn’t contain a single extra. Every character jumps off the page; including Luke Garret, the wonderfully talented, yet tragically impish, surgeon, in Love with Cora. Cora’s precocious son, who is every bit as curious about the wonders of nature, yet somehow seems to have little in common with his mother. And William the well read parish vicar who sees no conflict between Christian faith and scientific reason.

* I say basic, but it’s a subtly intricate plot with just enough going on to make it a very entertaining and engaging read.

Lisa McInerney – The Blood Miracles

This is my second time starting a Lisa McInerney novel with great excitement. I have to admit I had mixed feelings when I realised The Blood Miracles was a sequel. I’m not a big fan of series books, not sure why. I never buy anything with a number in the title. Yet this cast of characters was so wonderfully realised in the debut novel, that I was more than happy to delve into their chaotic lives again.

The Blood Miracles picks up the plot a few years on from the end of The Glorious Heresies: “This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s Fuck-ups, begins with Ecstasy”. And we’re off. That first line sets the pace for the whole book. Ryan is a fuck up. He just can’t get his head out of gangland and drug dealing. He’s been making too much easy money. And he’s already in too deep; it’s not a job where you can just hand in your two week’s notice and ask for your p45. But he’s sick of his own wheeling and dealing, and getting off his head more than he can handle, and more than his girlfriend can bear. His creative musical side nags him constantly. He has so much wasted potential and his girlfriend, Karine, is sick of telling him this.

Their relationship has soured badly. The whirlwind romance is over. It’s on the floor of some filthy toilet cubicle in the remnants of a coke wrapper. The relationship is threatened from all angles. Ryan is really trying to make some progress with his music, but the gangland nutters keep pulling him back to the gutter. There’s a huge Ecstasy deal going down and he’s the only man for dealing with the Neopolitan dealers who don’t have a word of English. There’s a new girl on the scene too, and an old one, our beloved mystic; Maureen. There’s too much chaos to juggle and Ryan can barely keep his head together to make sense of it all, or make any sensible choices.

Blood miracles is a thoroughly engaging and thrilling read. I can’t remember the last time I found it this hard to pull myself away from a book when needs must, and then the pull of it demanding to be picked up again was magnetic.

True Dat Boy!!

Released 20th April

Ali Land – Good Me, Bad me

A lot of people have been talking about this book lately. It has a memorable cover, which keeps popping up in my various timelines. When I heard the basic premise: a young girl is taken into care after going to the police to hand in her mother, a child serial killer, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be YA, a sensational thriller, or literary fiction (what I was hoping for). At a high level, it’s a mix of those three genres, and much more; it’s its own thing really.

There are a few things going on in with the plot too. There’s the dark background of the awful crimes Millie’s mother has committed but against Millie, and fatally to other children, Milly’s integration into a foster family with their own problems, and her struggle with settling into a posh girl’s school with some horrible bullies. And also as the perfectly descriptive title suggests Milly’s struggle with her own identity and morality. All these elements are finely weaved into a very compelling read.

Cecilia Ahern – Lyrebird

Popular Romantic Fiction really isn’t my thing. But this was one of the options in my online book club, and I thought I’d give Cecilia Ahern the benefit of the doubt. It can be refreshing to read a genre you wouldn’t normally read now and then. Also there are so few Irish Audiobooks, I’ve only listened to about 4 including this.

Plot: a documentary crew stumble upon a young woman with a unique talent for mimicry; Think Little Voice possessed by Michael Winslow and you have it.

This started off really well. I was quite surprised. Really well written realistic interesting characters. I was hooked from the start and enjoyed every bit of it. And then it all went wrong. The plot took a turn that I found as cheap and tacky as the TV show that got involved. I just didn’t enjoy this turn of events and hoped it would be short lived. But it stayed with it for the rest of the plot. I didn’t buy this at all. None of the characters would have gone along with this, and it really felt like a cheap and tacky plot diversion to prolong the oldest romance trope in the book: “Will they won’t they?”. What a disappointment to such a great start. It could have been so much better. Also I couldn’t help thinking I was reading a potential screenplay for a hollywood romance.

I never hated it. I never wanted to abandon it. And I never got bored. And I liked most of the characters. But I found this whole section of the book, which was the majority of the plot, very disappointing which only confirmed the suspicion that popular romance doesn’t have much to offer me. Particularly if tacky cliched plot devices are the best they have to offer.

My top 10 books of 2016

 

10. Tender – McKeon, Belinda

Kindle edition

Heady college days. Two friends, Catherine and James. James is vibrant and energetic. Catherine is whiney and clingy. These characters border very close to being very irritating but McKeon, a master in exploring the subtleties of human interaction, pulls back just enough to let you care about them.

9. Bird Box – Malerman, Josh

Kindle edition

Fun unhyped thriller with a simple concept: people have started to go Berserk when they see *something*. The world quickly escalates to apocalypse. This is the story of one woman trying to survive with two children who have only known this world through a blindfold. Fun.

8. A Decent Ride – Irvine Welsh

Audiobook edition

Juice Terry Jones. A total shagmeister. Drives a taxi. Shags everything in sight. He’s almost too much to bear but he’s contrasted by the story of a sweet simple radge called Jonty. Welsh breaks every taboo in this book. The Guardian wrote it off as Poor writing and penis jokes. In lesser hands, I’d agree but no one can write this kind of stuff like Welsh, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of this.

7. Undermajordomo Minor – deWitt, Patrick

Audiobook edition

Patrick deWitt really gets the idea that writing should always be entertaining;  I’m yet to meet someone who hasn’t loved The Sisters Brothers. Under Major Domo is probably not quite as good but it’s not too far off either.

 6. Alan Partridge – Nomad

Audiobook edition

The follow up to Alan Partidge’s autobiography, sees him retrace a path his father took many years ago. Once again this is a laugh-a-minute. The audio version read in-character is a must.

5. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Harari, Yuval Noah

Audiobook edition

Essential non-fiction exploring many theories about why we are the way we are, where we’ve come from and how we got here. Lots of common sense where you find yourself nodding and thinking you knew that already. But plenty of unique ideas also. One of the major themes is the idea that sapiens are different to other animals mostly because of myths that we’ve all agreed to believe in, such as the concept of money.

4. Nothing on Earth – Conor O’Callaghan

People go missing. Where have they gone? Why have they gone? Is it a psychological thriller? A domestic drama? A whodunnit? Something else entirely? All of these things? None of these things? I loved the slight shapeshifting of form and the ambiguity in this story.

3.  My Struggle: Books 2 & 3 Books Knausgård, Karl Ove

Audiobook editions

3 down, 3 to go in this autobiographical masterwork dissecting the minutiae of human interactions and everyday life and somehow making it all fascinating.

2. Reasons to stay alive

Audiobook

This started with a little bit of eyerolling at the mansplaining and preaching-to-the-converted about mental illness. Explaining how mental pain far exceeds any physical pain, and that telling a depressive to cheer up, is as pointless as telling a cancer patient to uncancer. Aren’t we past all this? probably not. This was all fine – it’s a book aimed at everyone, so it starts with the basics, fine. And then as I read on, not only did I start to think of it as essential reading for everyone, but I finished thinking this was the most amazing, intelligent, philosophical, life-affirming , wonderful book that I’de read in a long time. I basked in it’s warm after-glow for the rest of the day that I finished it.

1.  Non-superhero Graphic novels

All paperpack

If there’s one good thing about having your own site, it’s being able to write whatever nonsense you like, and with that, my number 1 book this year is a genre; non-superhero graphic novels.  This was the year of the graphic novel for me. I’ve since stopped reading paper books entirely, except for anything with graphics. I’m not so interested in Superhero type books, they covers such a huge amount of the graphic novel market, that what’s left is very niche and hard to find good books. What I really like are graphic novels that match my non-graphic tastes: contemporary, literary fiction, dark humour, memoirs, short stories etc. I really enjoyed all these:

Everything is Teeth – Evie Wild & And Summer

A graphic novel memoir of Evie Wild’s childhood, during which she was obsessed with Sharks, her brother was bullied, and the family spent hot summers in Australia and it’s shark infested waters. Opened packaging and immediately read from start to finish in one setting with 8-year-old daughter. We both loved it.

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Killing and Dying – Adrian Tomine

A book of short stories with a variety of characters, with a running theme of loss and broken relationships in modern life.

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Lucia  – Andy Hixon

This one is all about the imagery, I love the dark creepy nightmarish characters in this end of life coastal town somewhere between Roston Vasey and hell.

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Fun Home – A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel

A decade old (wow – it seems so fresh to me) but my favourite book this year. This is an absolute gem of a graphic novel memoir from the woman most famous for the Bechdel test who grew up in a funeral home with an eccentric family.

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Update: I somehow forgot…

Beetlebone – Kevin Barry

Audiobook – read by author

I never added this to my goodreads read list so it was off the radar but it was definitely one of my favourite books of the year. A mostly-fictional account of John Lennon coming over to Ireland to stay on an Island he had bought as a retreat from the limelight. Amazing writing which really touched a nerve with me.

 

 

23 Quick book reviews from the first half of 2016

I’m getting lazier and lazier with book reviews these days and find it easier to do a  bunch together. Here’s a quick review of 23 books.

Lucia – Hixon, Andy

One of the first books in my ongoing collection of non-superhero type graphic novels. I love the art, it’s a very unique style, and the overall vibe is somewhere between League of Gentlemen and the darker side of Little Britain. I love the dark graphic humour in this and though I finished it in one go, I flick through it occasionally.

The Arrival – Tan, Shaun

One of the kids got this from Santa. But I loved it. It’s a graphic novel about the alienation of emigration, and has no words, it doesn’t get more graphic novel than this. A lot of the images are obscure and open to interpretation. So it’s a very unique experience and Shaun Tan’s art is stunning.

The Bees – Paull, Laline

I found it hard to relate to this, despite that fact that it is obviously very little to do with bees and much more about our own society, class, religion,  racism, and politics. Though I found the male bees, and their pathetic maleness massively entertaining whenever they appeared: “Kneel down before me and lick my crotch!”

Tender – McKeon, Belinda

Heady college days. Two friends, Catherine and James. James is vibrant and energetic. Catherine is whiney and clingy. These characters border very close to being very irritating but McKeon, a master in exploring the subtleties of human interaction, pulls back just enough to let you care about them.

A Man Called Ove – Backman, Fredrik

This is a bit overhyped at the moment. Everyone is raving about it. I quite enjoyed it though I found it too farcical to be as moving as a lot of people found it and I have definitely had my fill of grumpy old men stories.

The Grownup Flynn, Gillian

Unfortunately Gillian Flynn seems to go gradually downhill with every release. Sharp Objects (amazing), Dark Places (great), Gone Girl (good), and now The Grownup  (disappointingly mediocre and totally forgettable). Though it’s just a short story so the jury is still out. I hope she get’s back on track with her next novel.

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love – Knausgård, Karl Ove

Book 1? I thought it was ok. Bit overhyped and I was just feeling my way around. Book 2? Ok I get it. I’m hooked. Dissecting the minutiae of human interactions and painful smalltalk between parents at children’s birthday parties. Yes. I’m on. Bring on the whole series.

Mortality – Hitchens, Christopher

Short book about Hitch discovering he has the Big C and how he deals with it leading up to his death. Sad and Poignant but dignified and staunch to the end.

Bird Box – Malerman, Josh

I really like books like this sometimes. They’re like B-Movies: Take a simple idea and run with it. In Bird Box people have started to go Berserk when they see *something*. The world quickly escalates to apocalypse. This is the story of one woman trying to survive with two children who have only known this world through a blindfold. Fun.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind – Harari, Yuval Noah

Essential non-fiction exploring many theories about why we are the way we are, where we’ve come from and how we got here. It contains lots of common sense where you find yourself nodding and thinking you knew that already. But also plenty of unique ideas also. One of the major themes is the idea that sapiens are different to other animals mostly because of myths that we’ve all agreed to believe in, such as the concept of money.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – Ronson, Jon

I’m yet to be let down by a Jon Ronson book. I always find them really entertaining. Here he delves into the lives of those who have been publicly shamed and those who have done the shaming, not just dedicated trolls but regular Internet peeps too.

Undermajordomo Minor – deWitt, Patrick

Again someone who really gets that books need to be entertaining. I’m yet to meet someone who hasn’t loved The Sisters Brothers. Under Major Domo is probably not quite as good but it’s not too far off either.

Killing and Dying: Stories – Tomine, Adrian

Another addition to my collection of “Graphic novels that aren’t superhero books”. This one is lots of short stories about modern life, nicely illustrated. I really liked it. And such a quick read, I will surely read again.

On the Move: A Life – Sacks, Oliver

Autobiography of a fascinating neuroscientist, who most people know at this stage – right? If not for his great series of books such as “The man who mistook his wife for a hat”, then at least you’ll know Awakenings, the Robin William’s movie which is based partly on how Sacks treated comatose patients in a hospital and briefly brought them to life.

The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island – Bryson, Bill

There’s a theme here today in several books: I rate entertainment among all else in books and Bryson is always entertaining, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny. It’s 20 years since Notes from a small Island and he’s back touring the UK again. A running theme through this book is a massive appreciation for the countryside and railing against the idiots who see no value in maintaining a countryside and want to build everywhere. I second this emotion.

A Decent Ride – Irvine Welsh

Juice Terry Jones. A total shagmeister. Drives a taxi. Shags everything in sight. He’s almost too much to bear but he’s contrasted by the story of a sweet simple radge called Jonty. Welsh breaks every taboo in this book. The Guardian wrote it off as Poor writing and penis jokes. In lesser hands, I’d agree but no one can write this kind of stuff like Welsh, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of this.

The Virgin Suicides – Eugenides, Jeffrey

I’ve been a big Eugenides fan since Middlesex, but somehow never got around to his better known debut. I can now say I’ve loved every one of his books.

Vertigo – Walsh, Joanna

A new book of semi-maybe-related short stories with glowing critical reviews but I found it a bit too obscure. Some stories worked better than others but I almost abandoned it before realising I was closer to the end than I had thought.

The Buried Giant – Ishiguro, Kazuo

Not sure what I was expecting here. I really enjoyed Never Let Me Go. But this was completely different: wizards and knights and all that nonsense, and a story that just plodded along without anything entertaining happening. I lost the will to live after a while and completely abandoned it. I was already someone who didn’t read fantasy (any more). This has surely sealed the deal.

Landmarks – Macfarlane, Robert

There has emerged a non-fiction genre, and a broader movement that I’m really into at the moment. It’s hard to pigeonhole but in a nutshell it’s nature and life, the great outdoors, and how it connects to the soul, and my own childhood spent between the beach and the woods, but mostly the woods. I’ve even started a nature and Life Goodreads list. I adored H is for Hawk which completely nails this whole nature and life shebang. Landmarks is about the language of the landscape and contains lists of long forgotten words from the natural world. It’s a lovely book in itself, and also explores many other great books in this field, which I really look forward to reading.

How to be Both – Smith, Ali

This is a novelty book in that there are two stories; one with a character set from ye oldie times ago, and one story set in present day. Some of these books were published with one story coming first, and vice versa in other print editions. The two stories have some overlap. In theory I love this novelty, but think I would have enjoyed it more had there been bit more forward and back between chapters. Unsurprisingly for me, I preferred the modern day story, and by the end of the book with the ye oldie day character, I had lost some interest.

Everything is Teeth – Evie Wild & And Summer

A graphic novel memoir of Evie Wild’s childhood, during which she was obsessed with Sharks, her brother was bullied and the family spent hot summers in Australia and it’s shark infested waters. Opened packaging and immediately read from start to finish in one setting with 7-year-old daughter. We both loved it.

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body – Pascoe, Sara

Sara Pascoe popped up on so many podcasts that I listen to: No such thing as a Fish, Distraction Pieces, and Adam Buxton. I like her schtick. She’s got an encyclopaedic knowledge from reading a gazillion books and kicks ass when she’s on QI. And she’s also funny. So I’m a recent fan. Animal is a mixture of personal memoir and how natural selection has formed the sexual body and mind. Despite some occasional dumbing down (she wanted this to be readable for confused school girls, ok fine), the occasional bad joke which *good* comedians can’t seem to resist in debut books “let’s call him Colin, because that’s his name” and occasionally assuming the audience is female, this was an interesting and enjoyable read.

A year in books 2015

That was a great year for books. I’ve just finished my Goodreads challenge of reading 50 books in 2015. First time doing a challenge. It kept me on my toes. And I got to read a lot of amazing books:

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20 Female writers.  30 Male. ( I’m surprised it has ended as more male but that’s just how the cookie crumbled this year…. I think anyone who chooses books based on the sex of the author needs to wake the fuck up.)

10 Irish writers.

6 Short stories.

29 Novels.

11 non fiction.

23 Audiobooks, 22 Kindle (I think. looking at some covers, I just can’t quite remember )

2 on paper. Both Graphic;  pretty much the only paper I read these days.

Once again, some of the more interesting books are Narrative non-fiction, and sit somewhere between novels and non-fiction: H is for Hawk. My Age of Anxiety, My Struggle, The Guest Cat, and 10% Happier.

According to Goodreads, the most popular book I read this year was  “All the Light We Cannot See” which was one of the most disappointing reads of the year for me. It just didn’t work for me. “Narrow Road to the deep North” was a close second.

Top ten books

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
It’s the prose (too broken to conform to English standards) that transforms this book from standard Irish misery porn to a raw outburst of thorny emotion.

10% Happier
Dan Harris cuts through a lot of new age bullshit in a search of some self-help that genuinely works, and lands on the increasingly popular: mindfullness. I’m in.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Haruki Murakami delivers once again. A story that somehow brings to life the kind of flittering sub conscious thoughts and feelings that lurk in the back of your mind. This novel explores some typical Murakami themes; but in essence I think it’s mostly about guilt, sexual fantasies, and that space in between fantasy, reality, inner thoughts, and outer realities, ahem.

Spoiled Brats / Daft Wee Stories
A tie for these two books of short stories. Every top ten deserves a spot for some of the more light-hearted reads and both of these were great fun.

Asking for it
The cover and title put me off this book for a while, it seemed like a different kind of book to me. But I kept hearing it was great, and it was.  I found it very brave and clever in so many subtle ways, like having a character who could have been made more sympathetic in many places, but wasn’t. Which made her all the more real. And the point is none of that matters; rape is rape. Behaviour is irrelevant. Sex without consent is rape. End of. There are no fucking blurred lines.

Into That Forest
A unique story about two girls raised by Tasmanian tigers. Works great in audio; the narration is fantastic: an intriguing old lady telling you a story by a fire.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither
Another book where I almost didn’t. I worried that a book about a lonely man and his dog would be way too twee, but it never was. The fine writing was anything but twee.

Purity: A Novel
This is a funny one. It’s as solid Franzen as ever. A solid five stars. I can’t fault the rich fabric of the story or the wonderfully believable characters you always get with Franzen. Yet he seems to have lost a sense of fun that he had with The Corrections. But I still enjoyed every minute of it. There’s a great Mark Twain quote that came to mind while reading this: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” i.e. Novelists often have to hold back on some of the weirdness because they can’t get away with it as easily as they could if they were writing non-fiction but in Purity, I think Franzen got the balance just right.

The Glorious Heresies
Another novel with a great story and believably flawed and nuanced characters. But this time we’re closer to home in the arse end of Cork.

A little Life
Isn’t that title a great joke? There’s nothing little about this book. Anyway, Hanya Yanagihara is right up there with my favourite gang of great contemporary American novelists now; Franzen, Eugenides, and Tartt. It starts off about five friends, but it’s really about one, a tortured mind, body and soul called Jude St.Francis. The writing is so good, you just know you’re in very fine hands from the very start. I thought it might be over hyped but it’s as good as everyone is saying it is.

H is for Hawk
I just loved this book. I think it just about pipped it as book of the year for me. It’s about grief. It’s about a Hawk. It’s about trying to replace grief with a Hawk. In parts it’s also an autobiography of another Hawker. It’s about mental health. It’s about connecting with another soul. It’s about life. It’s about everything in between. Written with such charm, intrigue, and intelligence.  I’ve very fond memories from the summer, sitting in Stephen’s green with this book at lunchtime, and such fine company it was.

p.s. There’s 12 books in my top ten. Bite me!

Two shit books

With most books that I don’t enjoy, I can still appreciate the writing or see why other people might enjoy them – and just think this isn’t for me for one reason or another. But now and then a book will come along that I just think is utter shit and that’s that. I’ve had two this year:

Fat Chance – Nick Spalding
This was a daily deal on audible.com and I think I had heard of it before. So I nabbed it. It’s basically “Carry On Fatty”. Let’s all laugh at fat people. That’s it. And it’s just not that funny. The writing is fairly mediocre, the similes are just non-stop “as busy as a midget in quicksand” or similar, every few pages. Groan. So far, so bad, but then it gets worse. There’s an undercurrent of casual racism, sexism and homophobia. I thought maybe I’m missing the joke, maybe Nick Spalding is actually a fat gay asian woman. That might put a different slant on things. But no, sure enough he’s a slim, straight, white man. He’s alright Jack. I thought it might somehow redeem itself, and slowly switch things around but it just kept getting worse.

“What self-respecting straight man would ever consider going on a diet?”. That’s the line where I thought “What self-respecting reader would finish reading this piece of shit”? Not me.

Jeffrey Archer – Twelve Red Herrings
I really had no idea what kind of books Archer wrote. All I knew was that he was a very well known English writer. I was on my Kindle one night, browsing the store and this was in the Editor’s Choice section. Editor’s Choice my hole. This has to be some kind of auto-generated list. There’s not a chance someone read this and actually thought it deserved a place in an Editor’s Picks list. The writing was so bad, the characters so one-dimensional, the plots so basic, the twists so predictable, and the cliches so ever present. At one stage I actually thought it was some kind of pastiche of bad writing. But no – I eventually realised, he must be one of those awful writers that sells a shitload of books because he hits that lowest common denominator mark right on the nose.

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Note. Both of these get *almost* 4 stars on Goodreads. Nearly everything on Goodreads levels out at almost 4 stars. To get any decent indicator from these star systems, you’d really want to strip out the first three stars and then recalculate.

For example, a shit book might level out at 3.2 overall and a great book might level out 3.9 but these look very similar on Goodreads, almost 4 stars. The real rating is that one is a “.2” and the other is a “.9”. Forget about the 3 at the start.

I’d love if someone programmed a browser plugin to strip out the first 3 stars and the 5th star and give it a newly weighted rating. That’d be much more indicative of the quality.