My month of Madness (Audiobook)

Brain_on_Fire_Susannah_Cahalan

This audiobook was going cheap in an Audible sale. So I just nabbed it without looking into it much and got off to a bad start because I’d assumed it was about mental illness, and the whole style was so flippant, that I started to find it quite irritating. My fault, not the book. Though the title is quite misleading for anyone who has decided to read it without any background info.

What it’s actually about is one woman’s experience with a rare autoimmune reaction in the brain called Anti-NMDA receptor antibody encephalitis. Her experiences are a bit mental! but have little to do with mental illness, though some of the symptoms were similar to psychosis, and schizophrenia. Once I realised it wasn’t about mental illness, I could enjoy it for what it was, and it is an an interesting story. 

It also clearly depicts how easy it is to fall prey to negligence, ignorance, and misdiagnosis at the hands of the medical profession, and how sheer luck can sometimes play such a huge part in getting the right diagnosis and treatment.

I also love to coming across nuggets of information that completely dispel mythical tales of woo. In this case the symptoms that she suffered, seen through the wrong eyes, could be perceived as a demonic possession.

Science:1, Superstitious Bullshit: 0.

Silas Marner – Audiobook & Kindle

I don’t have a good track record with ye old classics. I’ve found a lot of them quite dated, regardless of how ahead of their time some of them once we’re.  And others are just a bit too… stiff & stuffy for my liking. I just I connect with contemporary books more easily. Simple as that.  Hot off the press. That’s how I like it. But I thought I’d test the waters again and I ended up with Silas Marner as my test subject.

I found my enjoyment of it, and lack of, a bit of a roller coaster. I quite enjoyed the opening chapters and could really appreciate the fine writing. But then I hit a massive bump all of a sudden: there was a scene with a bar of old codgers talking a godawful load of codswallop, and I couldn’t wait for it to end. I found it really unpleasant to listen to. I thought I might have to abandon the book completely. I wasn’t quite sure if it was the actual dialog, or the narrator of the audiobook, but I switched from audio to Kindle and it was definitely a major improvement reading it myself,  I’ve never experienced that before.  And there wasn’t another such chunk of dense dialogue again.

Then I found there were definite peaks and troughs in the actual story. Not much different than a lot of books but overall it really added to my rollercoaster experience of this book. It went up and down through the range of star ratings from 1,  2, 3, 4. I settled on an overall 3 out 5 for Silas Marner.

A worthwhile exercise, and not a terrible experience overall. But I’m definitely happier with more contemporary work (though not necessarily a contemporary setting) and I don’t see any reason to break from that comfort zone again any time soon. Some people don’t read sci-fi or other genres. I don’t read old classics. So that’s that.

PS I’m glad I was steered away from Middlemarch,  which I nearly went for.  Although reputedly one of the greatest novels in the English language, it doesn’t seem like the ideal book to test the waters of the classics pool.

Doctor Sleep (Audiobook)

Like a lot of young readers, I grew up reading lots and lots of Stephen King. Then I found myself tiring of the genre. And then I starting thinking a lot of his books were, to be blunt: shit. “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” was the last straw for me. He clearly took all his shoddiest short stories and chucked them together to keep some publisher happy. There were a few decent stories but they were mostly tripe. That was the end of King for me, which was…. WOW! twenty years ago! Over the last few years I’ve grown curious. Particularly as I’ve heard lots good things about some of his more recent novels.

So I finally bit the bullet with Doctor Sleep.

Little Danny Redrum Torrence has grown up, and has clearly inherited from his father, both The Shining, and Alcoholism and this book deals with both demons equally.

King is still a master of the crafts he was always good at; he’s a great story teller, such a great turn of phrase, and he can carve great believable characters out of thin air. But then I hit a big bump. Quite early on he went bang into some really over-the-top supernatural woo. Over the years I’ve really grown to hate anything which promotes woo, and my eyes would not stop rolling in my head reading when he started rolling out the same old supernatural tropes; a load of puerile mind-reading-ghosty-vampire nonsense, turned up to eleven. I think he could have eased us in a bit, it got quite ridiculous, quite early. I was *that* close to sending it back via Audible’s wonderful no quibble returns policy.

But then he slowly won me over. Even though it’s ultimately the classic King trope in the form of an epic battle of good against evil. What King does best is to really get you rooting for the characters; namely the grown-up Danny and a young girl he befriends who Shines like a lighthouse.

Here’s something I found really interesting:

In Skagboys, the sequel to Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh described the characters in such a way that he made it clear that this was a sequel to the book, not the movie. But the characters in Doctor Sleep are clearly straight out of the movie; the way he describes that grin could only be Jack Nicholson.

That’s interesting. Considering he famously hated Kubrick’s adaptation, he still seems to have taken on board the collective King/Kubrick authorship of people’s collective memory of The Shining. No one can think of Jack Torrance without picturing Nicholson smashing through that door.
And he alludes to all this in an authors note at the end of the book, still getting a dig in saying “Plus, of course, there was Stanley Kubrick’s movie, which many seem to remember – for reasons I have never quite understood – as one of the scariest films they have ever seen.”

Personally I hate that The Shining is always rated in terms of scariness. I think it’s one of the best movies ever made, regardless of whether it is or isn’t one of the scariest horrors ever made.

So if you can get past the supernatural nonsense, it’s a great book, and if you are a fan of that stuff it must only be better.

Also – the narrator of this audiobook was one of the best I’ve heard. His scarey voice was chilling!

A few quick reviews

Tampa, by Alissa Nutting (Audiobook)
Celeste Price became a teacher with the sole purpose of seducing teenage students. I usually roll my eyes when I hear people complaining that a  book is controversial just for the sake of controversy, but found myself thinking something similar with this. It was just a bit too shallow and frivolous. Had it’s moments, but at times, it reminded me of a story you might come across in a bad waiting-room magazine. I still love the cover though. And I was amused by the ever present subtext that if this book was about a male teacher, there would probably be book burnings across the States.
3/5

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle (Audiobook)
The most apt thing I can say about this is “Brilliant, fucking brilliant”. Nice sequel to The Commitments. The Audiobook is pitch perfecto, with a great job by Laurence Quinlan (Elmo).
5/5

The Troop, by Nick Cutter (Audiobook)
I haven’t read a horror in years. This was a pretty good read though. Lord of the Flies meets World War Z tells you all you need to know. The narration was a tad over-baked in places though. He read every single line as if something terrifying was happening. Steady on, he’s just opening a tin of beans!
4/5

The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson (Audiobook)
Although a few slip through the net, it’s hard not to hear about a good movie. But I’m often amazed at the volume of amazing books that you 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 crashes his car while off his head and hallucinating then get’s horribly burned alive in the car, which is described in great detail, and that’s just the first page, awesome stuff!
5/5

Tenth of December, by George Sanders (Kindle)
I don’t read as many short stories as I would like but I heard a lot about this one. It’s good but just slightly overhyped. What I found interesting is that I didn’t find it much different than a novel; there were so many common elements throughout the stories that it was like a novel with many characters tidied away into neat chapters.
4/5

The Rosie Project, Graeme Simpson (Kindle)
Don Tillman is a teacher on the autistic spectrum trying to find a wife via a inanely strict questionnaire. Hilarity ensues. This was really good fun. I genuinely laughed out loud a few times. I just stumbled across one day and bought it on a whim, I had no idea it was one of those books that was everywhere until I saw it in a spinner at my local garage.
5/5

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful ruins (Audiobook)
Written by Walter Jess
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini

I said it before and I’ll say it again: I love a good dose of contrast in books. Beautiful Ruins contrasts between the charms of a small Italian coastal village in 1962 and the cynical world of modern day Hollywood where everyone is pitching for the latest reality TV show.

The cover and title of this book are a bit misleading – it looks like it’s going to be a romantic story set in that coastal Italian Village, but that’s only the half of it, I think I would have tired of it quickly without the contrast of flicking between the romantic past and the shallow present. It’s got a great cast of characters also:

  • Pasquale Tursi an Italian Hotelier with grand notions of making a beach and a tennis court beside his small empty hotel.
  • Alvis Bender, an American war veteran / failed novelist / successful drunk philosopher
  • Pat Bender, a has been musician, who’s on the brink of being a full time waster
  • Shane Wheeler, a wannabe playwright who manages to get a pitch with a casting agent…
  • Claire Silver, Film school graduate, whose soul sinks further with every ‘reality tv’ pitch she has to listen to.
  • Michael Deane: a horrible, a plastic-faced, movie exec, who puts a price tag on everything
  • Richard Burton – yes Richard Burton!
  • And Dee Moray – the Hollywood Starlet who links them all together through the past, present, Italy & Hollywood.

I really liked it – and it’s quite different than the cover makes it seem.

The audio is quite good, and won awards but thank God the Irish character is a minor role, that accent was woeful

4/5 stars

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried (Audiobook)
Written by Tim Obrien

Usually after a few pages, or at least a chapter of a book, I know whether I’m going to like, love, or hate a book. In my experience it’s all down to the author’s voice, not the actual plot. So if it’s not working for you in the first chapter, that’s not going to change by the time you get to the end. That’s why I no longer persevere with a book that isn’t working for me. Life’s too short. And finding out what happens at the end rarely balances out the torturous perseverance.

With this book however my initial perception was turned on its head. After the first chapter, I thought it was going to be an average Vietnam war novel. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it at all.

And then suddenly the story stops and the author starts talking about writing, and story-telling, and truth, and real truth, and story truth, and memory, and and rose-tinted glasses. And suddenly we’re in the territory of metafiction and narrative non-fiction. Which is when I really perked up. This was suddenly an altogether different book. The writing was so sharp, and dripping with a life experience that few of us could imagine, and even fewer of us could so expertly depict.

Where it falls down slightly is that there is a lot of overlap between the stories, and it becomes more and more obvious that this is not a book but series of previously written essays. A collection of brilliant essays, but still, a bit of editing could have possibly reduced the overlap and repetition.

On the audio end of things, it’s narrated by none other than Bryan Cranston. And if you think it couldn’t get any better than that, there’s a bonus chapter where the author revisits Vietnam with his daughter years later, and he narrates that chapter himself which is dripping with that old soul life experience. And it’s a perfect finish to a great audiobook

The Things They Carried (Flamingo)

Audiobook: The View on the Way Down

The View on the way down is about depression and suicide. And more than that it is the effects of depression and suicide on a family. For subject matter that some would consider taboo, it read to me as a very everyday story. Which is as it should be because depression and suicide are all around us. There is nothing sensational or melodramatic in this book. This is a regular family dealing with that “permanent solution to a temporary problem”. I think Rebecca Wait got the pitch just right. She knows her subject matter, but doesn’t showboat it. She doesn’t dwell on the details of the illness, but instead shows us the devastating results to all that surround it.

I noticed an interesting trait that all the characters had. At various points in the book the all had to mentally force themselves to say or do something that they weren’t comfortable doing. This was written as if it is something that we all have to do every day. Which made me think this was an everyday occurrence for Rebecca Wait, and that she was no stranger to mental health. Though I think the whole book is testament to that. You just could not write a book like this through research alone.

The plot is kept interesting by flicking between various characters perspectives; sister, brother, girlfriend, father, mother. It becomes subtly compelling to find out what will become of each of them.

On a lighter note, whenever I saw this book cover, I wondered why on earth did they have an upside-down flying witch on the cover? It was only when I saw a bigger version that I realized it was a girl on a swing.

4/5

Audiobook review: Eleanor and Park

I’m slightly inspired by the new look of my blog to try and start posting regularly again. Even if it’s just reviews of Audiobooks. And even if just very quick thoughts – rather than full blown reviews.

I can’t remember where I got this one recommendation from – I seem to end up reading more than my fair share of teenage love stories sometimes. I’m not exactly the target market.

Boy meets girl. They fall in love. There’s not a hell of a lot more to it. Ok there’s bullying, an evil stepdad, and a lot of good music references. That’s pretty much it.

It’s pretty good for what it is. I imagine a lot of teens would love it. I thought it was fine. Enough with the teeny stuff for now though.

Notes on the audio:
Both actors were fine. But as often the case, when the male actor was speaking as the female character, it was awful. He made her sound whiny and unlikeable. Eleanor didn’t sound like that at all when the female actor was doing her bits.

Top 10 books of 2012

My top 10 books of the year. All audiobooks except for the Psychopath test. (Wow there’s not much between this post and last years top ten, I might just turn this into a book blog and be done with it)

10Into the Darkest Corner I still want to find a thriller that genuinely thrills me but in general I find them really disappointing, clichéd, full of plot holes, and the biggest flaw in any genre for me: inauthentic. But this was definitely one of the better ones. Authethentic, plausible, and neither cliched nor disappointing.

9. Heft Arthur opp; an obese reclusive professor. Kel Keller: a promising baseball star. And Kel’s mother Charlene; the link between the two men. A small story, finely handled.

8. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry I’m still baffled by the clumsy start to this book but otherwise a fascinating dissection of what it really means to be a psychopath.

7. The Family Fang considering I’m a sucker for darkly comic dysfunctional families, how’s this for dysfunctional: “Child A” Annie and “Child B” Buster, serve as little more than the main props in their parent’s performance art. Unsurprisingly they have issues by the time they get to adulthood.

6. The Marriage Plot – A bit like One Day, except not shit. Actually it’s nothing like one day except that it pivots around a relationship. Recommended for fans of Franzen. They are quite similar.

5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home The thing about this book is that it’d be a great YA book. Though if it was marketed that way I never would have read it. The Hunger Games was a fun romp – but it had me rolling my eyes in lots of places where it was really dumbed down nonsense. If that’s YA I’m out. Tell the Wolves is mostly about a teenager struggling with loss, love and grief as well as the usual teenage stuff. But unlike The Hunger Games, it’s Rock Solid. No eye rolling.

4. 1Q84 – I’ve had a curious relationship with Murakami books, I wasn’t crazy about the first one but there’s something about his stories that just lure you back for more, and I’ve enjoyed each one more than the previous. But I also think 1Q84 is his most accomplished work, there’s a crazy logic in the alternate universe of 1Q84. It’s bit of a marmite book though, some people seem to hate it. I loved it.

3. People Who Eat Darkness: The Fate of Lucie Blackman True crime doesn’t get much better than this. There are so many fascinating strands to this 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 involving the disappearance of Lucie Blackman

2. Skagboys  Brilliant. As good as Trainspotting, if not better. No one does it better with this kind of stuff. It was like being back with a bunch of old friends. Even scumbags like Begbie… The problem is, he’s a mate n aw. What kin ye dae?

1. Where’d You Go, Bernadette  Comedy is a funny thing(!) I usually find any books that are written for the comedy section anything but funny. I really didn’t like the comedy-book-of-the-moment “The 100 year old man who climbed out of the window”. But Where’d You Go, Bernadette was for me genuine laugh out loud funny as fuck.

I wish more books were like this. 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.

Honourable mention as I just finished it yesterday.

The Yellow Birds

Yellow birds is an American soldier’s semi-autobiographical experience of the Iraq war. That conjures up a book that generally I would have little interest in but this boy sure can write. You can easily see why he’s being compared to the likes of Cormac McCarthy:

“Clouds spread out over the Atlantic like soiled linens on an unmade bed. I knew, watching them, that if any given moment a measurement could be made it would show how tentative was my mind’s mastery over my heart. Such small arrangements make a life, and though it’s hard to get close to saying what the heart is, it must at least be that which rushes to spill out of the parentheses which were the beginning and the end of my war: the old life disappearing into the dust … ”

It’s in equal parts about the death of a friend and the death of his own youth, both killed in a senseless war. Brilliantly written.