A few book reviews

After Dark – Haruki Murakami (Kindle)

A short book that’s much more about mood than narrative. It’s like Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks brought to life. Mari goes from cafe to cafe, visits a Japanese Love Hotel, and meets various characters, during one long night. While in the background there’s a Sleeping Beauty thing going on with her sister (Eri) who inhabits a cathartic dream state. She is visited by a dark character who’s present both in the real world and the dreamworld. The stories of these characters never fully resolve, they just play their part in conjuring up this metaphysical nocturnal mood. After Dark is somewhere between a long poem and a short novella.

– 3.5 stars

The Glorious Heresies – Lisa Mcinerney (Kindle)

I had this on pre-order for months and I was really looking forward to it. It was well worth the eager awaiting. It’s set in the arse end of a Cork City which the Celtic Tiger shat all over before it scarpered. Though it starts with a murder, it’s no whodunnit. What’s it’s really about is how the characters deal with the small and large ways the murder impacts their lives. And that’s the strength of this book; they’re rich, believably flawed characters.

There’s Ryan who’s a smart kid but a bit of a dosser. His coming-of-age is the anchor of the story. His dad Tony, is a bit of a waster; he loves his kids but makes no real effort to be a good father. Jimmy, a proper gangster has his thumb firmly over everyone else, and then there’s his mother Maureen who pops in and out of the story. She’s a great character; a little bit mad, but world-wise and full of charming self-made superstition, the best kind. There’s also a nosy neighbour with a penchant for teenage boys. And a girl stuck in a loop of self-medication to get through one more bout of prostitution which she needs to continue to pay for the habit she’s got through self-medication.

Every character in this book could have been very cliched in lesser hands. But these are as close to the real deal as you get in fiction. Though some people do very bad things, there’s no inherently good guys or bad guys.  It’s really about a bunch of people trying to figure who they are and what they need to do to survive, and the effects those decisions have on all those around them.

– 5 stars

Into that Forest – Louis Nowra (Audiobook)

Two young girls  spend four years in the wild after being adopted by two Tasmanian Tigers. That’s all you need to know really. It’s a great read, and works really well on audio because it’s pretty much an old lady sitting by a fire telling you the story of her life. A fascinating story, well told.

– 5 stars

Spoiled Brats: Stories – Simon Rich (Kindle)

When we go camping, I love sitting out by the fire at night. A few Saturdays ago, I decided I didn’t need to go on holiday to do this. I went out the back, fired up the fire pit, cracked open a four-pack, and read Spoilt Brats under the stars. As sad as it might sound, sitting on my own reading a book on a Saturday night was one of the best Saturday nights I’ve had in ages. This book of short stories about various spoilt brats had me laughing into the fire all night. The standout story is about Rip who falls into a vat of brine in 1915, is preserved for 100 years, then after being rescued and revived, stays with his great-great-grandson and tries to make sense of a world populated by hipsters. Really good fun.

– 5 stars

Irvine Welsh – The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (Audiobook)

I read this straight after “All the Light We Cannot See” which wasn’t my kind of thing. So my initial reaction to this was “YES! back in familiar, reliable hands”. Lucy Brennan is a super-fit, super-healthy, female trainer who’s a real bad ass. Lena Sorenson, is an overweight, artist lacking in self-esteem and confidence. I could be wrong but I’m assuming Welsh has moved to LA, got a personal trainer, and got into a real health buzz. This book is one massive rant against obese americans and their lifestyle. It’s not completely without sympathy for their plight though, the body-obsessed certainly get stick as well. But the tirade is mostly in one-direction. Lucy Brennan is a great character with some great lines but her schtick does start to wear a bit thin after a while.

There’s one other issue. The audiobook really falls down in a way that often happens with multiple-narrator audiobooks. It’s convoluted to explain though: When the Lena Sorenson narrator/actress is telling her own story, she sounds like a strong modern woman. But when the Lucy Brennan Narrator/actress is para-phrasing Lena’s character, she makes her sound like a pathetic whiney girl. I don’t know how this happens so often with audiobooks. It’s like the two narrators recorded their parts in complete isolation without any director / producer / whatever guiding them into any kind of consistency.

Overall good fun. But probably better as a non-audio read.

 

The Dinner – Herman Koch (Audiobook)

This is my second Herman Koch book. And I think it’s fair to say you don’t quite enjoy Herman Koch as much as you endure them. His books always seem to feature despicable, yet darkly comic characters.  I’ve seen this book recommended several times for fans of dark novels. And I thought it was going to be super dark… I was actually expecting some dinner guests to be the final course of the meal! But it’s not that kind of story at all. The meal is secondary to a story that unfolds while two couples have their meal. (Although a genuinely interesting read, there’s one major flaw in the book though. It makes no sense why a highly public politician would arrange to meet his brother and sister-in-law to discuss a dark secret, in a restaurant instead of one of their homes.)

– three stars

 

Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Audiobook)

2015 Booker winner about Dorrigo Evans, an Australian Doctor who survives a Japanese Slave Labour camp in 1943.

This is a very long meandering book that takes a very long time to get going and tried my patience several times – but never quite tried it enough to make me consider abandoning. I think the story is at its strongest and most straight-forward when you’re with the Australian prisoners of war going through their daily toils. But for more of the book, we’re with the protagonist in modern times, but in a lot of parts, you’re not quite sure where and when you are – and I found a lot of it quite wishy-washy and vague.

– 3 stars

A girl is a half formed thing

I remember going through a stage of reading book after book and wondering why every single novelist writes in the exact same style. Now and then you might find someone with a slight lilt to their style (Kevin Barry springs to mind). But rare to find a book written in a uniquely distinctive style.

And then comes along Eimear McBride. Brave enough to throw sentence structure out the window completely. Because sometimes, perfectly formed plain english just isn’t enough to express the head banging frustrations of life. How can you truly express the internal monologue of a troubled girl, with such plain language as regular English? And while I understand that most writers set themselves the challenge of working within those refrains, in some contexts, it’s so much more effective to run. Riot with fragmented. Sentences that don’t even

Actually this story might even be mundanely typical without the powerfully effect style of the writing. As it’s such typically Irish writing: religious mothers, sleazy uncles, prayers, catholic guilt, funerals.

Even though some parts were hard to follow, others were wonderfully concise and poetic.

Mad lust of it you get for computer games go blip across a screen”

“Fuck me softly fuck me quick is all the same once done to me. And washing in their rusted baths and flushing brown with limescale loos amid the digs of four a.m. before I put my knickers on.”

“Sister be a brother sister fixer of her woes”

“Doesn’t it look like a when we were little day?”

As much as I was wowed by the her style and overall impact of how the story was told, I’d be lying to whack five stars on it as it is a bit of work to read and truth be told, I yearned for the end to come more quickly. But I’m still thinking about it a week later.

Memrise – Sharing the love!

Some fads come and some fads go but it’s nearly 4 years now since I started using Memrise, and it’s still my favourite web site and the one I spend more time on than any other. I consider it my favourite waste of time, which isn’t a waste at all.

I started using it to learn Spanish but I use it to learn all kinds of things now. It’s the provision if mnemonics that make it much better than any other learning site, unless you have an amazing memory, which I definitely don’t.

I was walking through Stephen’s Green yesterday which compared to recent weather was surprisingly sunny. And I could name all the trees from their leaves, and all the birds by song, or sight. Which I know is incredibly nerdy, but is also pretty amazing to experience. Hearing all those birds out in the sunshine and knowing every one of them, was like that moment Daniel San stops waxing cars, and starts blocking punches.

I haven’t really had my Karate Kid moment with Spanish yet. Language is a real hurdle for me. I’ve never had a conversation in another language, which after four years learning, maybe isn’t the greatest testament, but I have had moments where I’ve seen Spanish on a page, and realised with wonder that I can understand the whole thing, and have also seen (simple) text in English where I could translate to Spanish. Hat tip to Duolingo also, which has a really great structure for learning languages, and a great app but I still have to use Memrise to actually learn Duolingo!

Other trivia: I can name any country on a map, or tell you it’s flag, or capital, and lots of other random stuff,  which makes up for an awful lot of messing in school. And comes in very handy for quizzes. And then there’s the embarrassing things that I really should have known already but do now at least, like the Streets of Dublin, and all Irish Counties.

Also, Memrise have previously had some trouble with their apps, on my devices at least, but with recent updates they’re all finally working wonderfully. App Store. Google Play.

As the kids say, I heart Memrise.

( Previously: Memrise & Moonwalking with Einstein )

Glow – Audiobook

Glow is a mysterious new drug popping up on the rave scene in London. Raf has a rare disorder called non-24-hour-sleep-wake, and guards the transmitter of pirate radio station. Raf’s friend has vanished. Urban Foxes are acting strange. And corporate conspiracies are afoot.

As much as I’ve mentioned the fact that I know when I won’t like a book regardless of how much other people rave about it, it works the other way too; sometimes I know I’ll like a book even though I keep hearing negative comments about it. And so it was with Glow, which just keep popping up on my horizon.

The biggest problem with Glow is the intricate plot. It’s too much work to follow. And that’s where all the negativity lies. But there are so many elements that make a good read, and all the other bits made Glow worthwhile, for me at least.

For a start, Ned Beauman books always seem to be brimming with fascinating topics both fictional and factual.

Then there’s the backdrop; Illegal raves, DJs, mysterious street drugs, and pirate radio stations. Ok you got me!

And though not necessarily a great story teller, in this case at least, Beauman is a fantastic writer.

So even though I had issues with following the plot and even bigger issues with believing parts of the plot and motives of the protagonist, those three elements above were enough to make it a really enjoyable read for me.

Beaumont also created a great Glow Spotify playlist which inspired the novel.

The Horde

I wrote this article for the Journal.ie last year, but it never got published. Seems very topical again…

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

I’ve been to the Mater Hospital A&E about six times in the last year or so. Either accompanying my mother, who had to be checked for suspected blood clots several times, or attending for a few unlucky accidents I’ve had myself this year. During the first visit with my mother, I was outraged, that at nearly eighty years of age, and in a wheelchair, she had to spend the whole night in the waiting room. It was fourteen hours before she got to lie on a trolley. I have to laugh at the fact that a lot of people are angered by the idea of spending the night on a trolley. What a luxury. Really. A trolley is basically a hospital bed, on wheels, usually located in the sanctuary of the emergency ward, compared to a night amid the chaos, discomfort and endless waiting in the A&E waiting room.

2012-09-28 05.12.57

These days I know what to expect, and with a resigned sigh, I’ll start packing my A&E survival pack, 100% sure that I will spend the entire night in the waiting room. For this you will need:

  • Kindle/iPod/Phone/Tablet/Chargers
  • Fruit/Sambos/Flask of tea
  • Change for vending machine, the contents of which will slowly transform overnight from unhealthy rubbish into the finest cuisine in the land
  • Ideally; earplugs also. By about 6:30am you will want to smash the TV in. I once sat through about six agonising episodes of “Traffic cops”. Being forced to listen to someone else’s loud TV is my idea of hell. Unfortunately, going anywhere near the buttons on the TV will undoubtedly draw the attention of THE HORDE.

Along with your well-packed survival bag, you will have some missions to accomplish:

MISSION #1: Do not draw attention to your presence & avoid interaction and eye contact with all members of THE HORDE.

Who are THE HORDE? They are the people who live in the A&E waiting room. Their faces change but underneath they are the same bunch of people every single time.

  • Loud disruptive abusive violent shouty person(s), often racist.
  • Alcoholic(s) who reek of wee, falling off the seats all night, gaining more injuries than they arrived with
  • Lots of random homeless people and/or junkies who all know each other, and know the A&E drill inside out
  • A gaggle of drunk girls*, with an amazing capacity for non-stop mindless chat
  • And if you’re especially lucky: a prisoner handcuffed to a cop or Mountjoy screw

*I’m not being sexist, I’m stating a fact, they’re present, every single time.

These are the members of THE HORDE. They never leave, and slowly multiply overnight until you are the last person there.

So you better revise your survival bag: leave those earplugs at home, you need to keep your wits about you…

MISSION #2 is to try and hear above the clamour, for the beautiful sound of your own name. Your ears will perk. Your heart will soar. You will be transported by an angel, from purgatory, past the St. Peter security guard, and through the pearly plastic gates to the emergency wards, even if only briefly. My last night there consisted of this loop:

  1. Hear my name, eventually…rejoice!
  2. Get patched up and returned to hell
  3. Slowly disintegrate into a pool of blood (gory pics from a week later)
  4. Repeat, until the plastic surgeon eventually arrived in the morning and saved me from THE HORDE just in time: they had all started shuffling towards me slowly, sniffing the air with hunger at the scent of fresh blood wafting through the air.

I wonder just how long all this has been going on, as I have a vague memory of some childhood injury where my Dad insisted on frantically running into A&E, carrying me in a blood spattered sheet, in a bid to avoid the dreaded all-night wait. It was probably a paper cut. Were THE HORDE waiting for me that night? I’ll never know.

I also wonder just where all the rich people go for their emergencies? I imagine the Beacon in Sandyford is a very different experience. Though for one injury I managed to go to the Mater Rapid Injury Clinic in Smithfield. And in comparison, it is unfathomable that these two places are run under the same name. They couldn’t be more different.

I got talking to one of the nurses about all this in the Mater A&E recently and of course they are just as frustrated at the disruption caused to the system. He said that every single unconscious drunk in Dublin gets picked up by an ambulance and dropped off at A&E. He also told me that in the UK these people are much more likely these days, to be sent to a drunk tank to sober up or sleep it off. This completely frees up A&E so that genuinely sick and seriously injured people can be seen more quickly and don’t have to spend the whole night in pain surrounded by the chaos of THE HORDE.

Books of the year 2014

Confirmed: When I stick to themes that I already know like I’m usually happy: New, fresh, contemporary, darkly comic, dysfunctional, character-based.

Reconfirmed: When I try books everyone raves about, which I’ve a gut feeling aren’t for me I’m nearly always disappointed: Mostly old classics & historical novels.

Biggest reading discovery this year: The realisation that “Literary Fiction” is totally my bag. I’d always associated the phrase with dusty old classics that I don’t generally get on with but have only come to learn that it encompasses the kind of contemporary life affirming novelists that I love: Franzen, Tartt, Eugenides etc.

Anyway here’s my top ten of the year. 1-9 aren’t in any particular order, but again this year I’ve a clear winner for number 1 spot.

10. Swimming Home – Deborah Levy (Kindle)
Is it a bear? is it a plane? No! It’s Kitty fucking Finch and she’s in your swimming pool.
Blog post

9. 11/22/63 – Stephen King (Audiobook)
I abandoned King for years and just came back to him this year. He can still spin a damn good yarn.
Goodreads

8. Under the Skin – Michel Faber (Audiobook)
Fascinating movie and book. Both well worth experiencing for different reasons. I’ll be reading more Faber this year.
Blog post

7. The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien (Audiobook)
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.
Blog post

6. Gulp – Mary Roach (Audiobook)
Mary Roach is such an entertaining writer she could write about your digestive tract and it’d still be amazing. Which is what she did.
Goodreads

5. The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion (Kindle)
I just stumbled across one day and bought it on a whim, I had no idea it was one of those mega famous books. Good fun. I genuinely laughed out loud a few times.
Goodreads

4. Sharp objects – Gillian Flynn (Kindle)
Much better, darker, and less cartoony than Gone Girl.
Goodreads

3. The Guts – Roddy Doyle (Audiobook)
Gimmicky yet still brilliant sequel to The Commitments.
Goodreads

2. We are all completely beside ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler (Audiobook)
I always seem to enjoy books that feature quirky families. And it doesn’t get much quirkier than a girl who grows up with a chimpanzee for a sister.
Blog post

1. The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson (Audiobook)
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 anything 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 during an hallucinatory drink and drugs binge then get’s horribly burned alive in his car, which is described in great detail, and that’s just the first page. What follows is a delicately written portrayal of a relationship between a man coming to terms with severe burn injuries and an unhinged woman obsessed with carving Gargoyles who tells him stories about their supposed relationships during their past lives.
Amazon

The Circle (Audiobook)

The Circle is Google, Facebook, Apple and Twitter rolled into 1 and turned up to 11. It’s a parody of social media and it’s a parody of society in general. Or at least the portion of society that is addicted to screens and social media, and the internet (guilty!). And it’s a very tongue-in-cheek, and very current, commentary on privacy. It’s also really good fun.

I think you need the right approach to enjoy it though. I often get annoyed with books that don’t have authentic characters. But if the main characters in this book behaved authentically, then the whole story would fall flat.

It’s mostly a great, fun read. But it hits a few bumps along the way: Many conversations in The Circle are in the form of an interrogation between the protaganist, Mae, and other employees, behind a wall of passive aggression and office politics. These conversations are of course supposed to be grating but it got a bit much and the grating really ramped up when the whole book turned into a hi tech version of The Truman show. All the dialogue from then on was purely for-the-cameras falseness. And there was no reprieve from this.

But on the whole really good fun that really takes the piss of hi-tech hammock companies.

1984 v2.0

My year with a Fitbit Flex

What’s a Fitbit Flex?

A fancy pedometer, that you wear permanently, which counts your steps, and syncs with apps to show you nice visual stats, and gives you a surprisingly rewarding 5 lights when you reach your target.

Is that it?

You can use it to track sleep. But this is done manually and more often than not, you’ll forget, and eventually not bother at all. You can also use the app to manually track food and water intake but I grew tired of that very quickly.

So what’s it good for?

It really encourages you to walk more. 10,000 steps a day is the default setting on the Fitbit (about 5 miles). Wearing a Fitbit also switches your brain into seeing any potential walk as a good thing rather than a drag. Now, I’ll happily walk the dog, go to the shops, take a stairs instead of a lift, or walk to a shop on the other side of town during lunch.

How was the honeymoon period?

Typically, I got a bit obsessive about reaching my daily target, which sometimes involved nonsense like walking around a coffee table last thing at night until my wrist lit up. Or going for a quick walk around the block before going to bed. Or walking from room to room and up and down the stairs.

And after that?

If you engage with other Fitbit users, or sites, you’ll notice lots of encouragement to increase your daily goal after you’ve got used to the Fitbit. 12,500 steps a day or 15,000 steps a day, or even 20,000 steps a day. I spent a few months on 15,000 (I think, maybe less). And this is where it became a real pain. It involved a quick walk before work, then walking for the entirety of lunch, and then another big walk in the evening. The whole day revolved around walking. I spent a whole summer walking during lunch instead of reading in a sunny summer park, or sitting by a canal reading, which I adore doing during the summer. (I listen to Audiobooks while I walk of course, but I still love actually reading).

ALSO – I noticed zero benefit. I stopped running for a good few months (after a couple of accidents) but continued all this walking and I really noticed that I started feeling like shit again, always very lethargic, fatigued, and low on energy, which is how I feel when I don’t exercise regularly. And walking all day did nothing for me compared to running. So my verdict, at least for me personally, is that anything above the 10k steps is really not worth it. I’m gone back to the default 10,000 steps a day. And that’s easy enough to reach without letting it completely take over my day. And lunch is now more reasonably divided into eating/reading/walking.

Verdict

So, a year later, I still like my Fitbit Flex, but it’s more of a gentle reminder to make sure I get a minimum of exercise every day, especially at weekends. Anything more than that can feck right off. The honeymoon period is well and truly over.

Screenshot_2014-10-29-14-50-43

Update: September 2015. I went through a period of not bothering with it much. And not wearing it some days. But I’ve been having a lot of trouble with restless legs syndrome recently. So I’ve been making an effort again to do a bare minimum of 10,000 steps a day… but I don’t obsess over it.

Under The Skin

The Book

I’ve been meaning to write this review for a while but the book is a Kindle Daily Deal today. So get it while it’s cheap.

The Movie

I think sometimes, that people look in the wrong places for Art. Film was snubbed for years as a lower art form, and even now, I still think it’s overlooked to some degree. It doesn’t get spoken of in the same terms as Hirst, Koons, Basquiat, Gormley, etc yet I think Under The Skin is the most amazing work of art I’ve witnessed in years. Some of the scenes are absolutely breathtaking, though quite eerie, and it really does get under your skin. Admittedly the plot wavered in places but it was still a stunning piece of work overall that left me thinking about it for days, and I can’t wait to watch it again.

The Audiobook

I never read a book if I’ve already seen the movie but I didn’t even know the book existed beforehand, and I was so intrigued by the movie that I wanted to know more, even though I loved the ambiguity of the movie. It turns out that the book is very different in detail and plot and stands on its own completely. They are almost different episodes of the same basic premise. And the book really struck me as an allegory for the carnivore/vegetarian debate. Considering it is in effect about meat, the title, perfectly works on many levels.

And while the movie has some of the most visually striking images I’ve seen in years, the audiobook contains some of the most haunting sounds I’ve heard in an audiobook.

Highly recommended. Watch it. Listen to it. Read it.

Under the Skin


The Bone Clocks (Audiobook)

Some books really seem to narrow the gap between short stories, novellas, and novels. Take George Saunders’ Tenth of December, the off-kilter dystopian world these short stories are set in give it a combined narrative that makes it seem very much in novel territory. And The Bone Clocks (like Cloud Atlas), is almost like a series of novellas with some character overlap. There is a thin line between the form of Tenth of December and The Bone Clocks. And as is often the case with short story books, I had very different reactions to each of these stories.

The first story in The Bone Clocks introduces us to Holly who is the common thread throughout all the stories. It’s a relatively straight-laced introduction that has much in common with Mitchell’s nostalgic eighties-twinged coming-of-age novel Black Swan Green, and I’m a total sucker for that whole that bag of tricks.

As Holly gets older, we’re introduced to new characters in her life. One section is about a posh con boy she has a fling with. Next we meet her husband, a war junky journalist. Ok – so far so good. And then not:

Next up is a very long section featuring an old whinge-bag novelist which I could not wait to end. It was only towards the end that I recognised the audiobook narrator of this section. I looked him up, and indeed, he narrated The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and To Say Nothing of the Dog. I pretty much hated both of those books. I find his style of narration incredibly irritating and it’s only in retrospect that I realise my great dislike of these books probably had more to do with the narrator than the writing, particularly as I so suddenly hated this chapter compared to the others. That’s interesting. I didn’t realise a narrator could sway a book that much. On top of that, this section has no great relevance to the overall story. It could be very easily skipped.

Ok annoying narrator out of the way. What’s next? Oh great. Full on, up-to-eleven, fantasy mode. Sigh. My eyes glaze over when I hear too many gobbledy-gook made-up words. And then made worse by borrowing from a new age supernatural world of woo that I can’t abide. Check out this guff: “Darnock shuts his eyes, opens his chakra eye and channels the ember red light of the shaded way at the throat of the holy of holies. The Blind Cathar is no longer dreaming.” This section was drenched in this psychobabble, and halfway through, I realised I hadn’t the slightest clue what was going on. And had to go back to the start and make an extra effort pay attention. And lost the will to live by the end of it.

Alas, I really enjoyed the final chapter, set in a post-apocalyptic rural Ireland. And no new age fantasy guff. So it was great to end on a good note, and as a whole, my overall experience was nudged into thinking this was a great 4-star read. There were a few VERY dodgy bits for me, but overall, Mitchell is still a very reliable read.