January 2020 reads

Tales from Outer Suburbia

  • Written by: Shaun Tan
  • Format: Graphic short stories, Hardback

2999495

I just love Shaun Tan books. Here we have more beautifully illustrated short stories with a touch of the surreal and abstract. I loved the story about xmas-like traditions, where people had begun to hang decorations on their roof satellites, alongside their most prized possession, whereupon a giant reindeer would come along during the night and take away the possession (if it smelled like a loved object) leaving the owner with a bittersweet detachment from material possession.

Goodreads


Oh My God, What a Complete Aisling

  • Written by: Emer McLysaght, Sarah Breen
  • Format: Audiobook

36161350. sy475

I don’t usually enjoy popular light reads but now and then I fancy something easy, and also occasionally find my curiosity piqued by the book of the moment, and everybody on the planet seems to love OMGWACA. To begin with, it was exactly what I expected: really on point with the Irish Cultural references which resulted in a few funny scenes. And I can see why some people would find it hilarious. But no LOLS from me. I just found it mildly amusing.

There’s not so much a plot as there is one thing after another. Aishling at a wedding, Aishling crying about her boyfriend John, Aishling on holiday, Aishling crying about John, Aishling moving to Dublin, Aishling crying about John, Aishling on another holiday, Aishling crying about John, ad infinitum.

About halfway through the book, here’s the vibe I got: Are you ever in an office canteen and there are a few people gossiping in hushed tones about some drama, and you just want to get your cup of tea and GTF out of there because you haven’t the slightest interest in that banal shite? Well that’s the vibe. I just couldn’t give a shit about Aishling’s banal dramas. There was zero depth (token tragedy doesn’t count), and no real plot, just one canteen drama after another.

And while the observant humour is mildly amusing, “Its funny cos it’s true!” stopped being funny about 10 years ago. Without a unique and wise world view, or some extra edge, observational comedy just isn’t funny enough on it’s own any more. Obviously plenty of people disagree but I can’t help thinking this is the literary equivalent of Mrs Brown’s Boys: if you like your comedy layed on thick, you’ll wet your pants. Mine are still dry though.

Overall I found it to be the light amusing read I expected but it was a one-trick-pony that got exceedingly more tedious the longer one-thing-after-another went on for.

Well – that all came out far more scathing than I expected. I hate looking like a book snob. But I’ve not much interest in being dishonest either.

Goodreads


Orange: The Complete Collection, Volume 1

  • Written & illustrated by: Ichigo Takano
  • Format: Graphic novel

25667474

This was my first Manga book. It has rave reviews but I think that’s from a young audience because the content is very YA. It’s a sweet enough story about a girl who receives a letter from her future self. But I was never fully invested. I found myself impatiently flicking through the pages and was looking forward to the end when I read the most disappointing three little words I’ve ever read in a book: “To be continued”. Argh! Not sure how I quite missed the relevance of “Volume 1” I think I was thrown by the “Complete collection”.

Goodreads


Trick Mirror

  • Written by: Jia Tolentino
  • Format: Kindle

43130415. sy475

Jia Tolentino is a very sharp insightful writer, which is instantly revealed in the first essay about the excitement of growing up with the early days of the Internet and watching it transmogrify into what we have today and all the baggage it has picked up along the way.

“Like many among us, I have become acutely conscious of the way my brain degrades when I strap it in to receive the full barrage of the internet—these unlimited channels, all constantly reloading with new information: births, deaths, boasts, bombings, jokes, job announcements, ads, warnings, complaints, confessions, and political disasters blitzing our frayed neurons in huge waves of information that pummel us and then are instantly replaced. This is an awful way to live, and it is wearing us down quickly.”


“The internet is governed by incentives that make it impossible to be a full person while interacting with it. In the future, we will inevitably be cheapened. Less and less of us will be left, not just as individuals but also as community members, as a collective of people facing various catastrophes.”

This set high expectations for me, but I didn’t quite engage as much with the subsequent essays even though the writing was at the same high bar, though the essay on the kind of Ecstasy promised by religion or chemicals was quite good too.

Most of the others, had a feminist slant. Well I mean, how can any book of essays by any female writer in the current genderpolitical climate not be set against a backdrop of feminist issues? Topics include the depiction of Heroines in fiction, the idea of the “troublesome woman” in celebrity culture, and a fantastic piece on the rise of the scammer.

Some essays sit somewhere between think-pieces and investigative journalism, particularly the piece about the university that gleams with a veneer of utopia while trying to conceal an underbelly of frat-boy gang-rape culture. The book finishes in a flourish on the subject of weddings, revealing that a lot of strongly held “old traditions” are relatively new, while also pondering the bum deal marriage can be for women. Here is another great line:

“The paradox at the heart of the wedding comes from the two versions of a woman that it conjures. There’s the glorified bride, looming large and resplendent and almost monstrously powerful, and there’s her nullified twin and opposite, the woman who vanishes underneath the name change and the veil. These two selves are opposites, bound together by male power.”

That almost seems like the definition of a trick mirror.

This book is supposed to have a theme of self-delusion. And some essays do. But it doesn’t quite hang together as a whole in the same way other essay books have done for me. It read to me as more of a greatest hits compilation than a proper album. But that doesn’t take away too much from the overall experience. Still a fine read

Goodreads

My favourite books of 2019

2018

I got lazy last year and didn’t do an end of year post even though I read (or listened to) lots of amazing books, so here’s a very quick overview: The Mindbody Prescription and The Great Pain Deception were absolutely life changing (see last post).

Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea was a stunning novel. Otherwise in fiction I loved The Milkman and the marmite book of the year: Normal People. I read lots of fascinating and amazingly entertaining non-fiction as well: Delusions of Gender, Smoke gets in your eyes, The Octopus, the Sea, and the deep Origins of consciousness, and the fascinating Why We Sleep.

In memoir, I loved The Trauma Cleaner, I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, Not My Father’s Son, and of course the glorious Notes to Self.


2019

I’ve read 52 books a year for 5 years now and here are my favourites from this year. I haven’t numbered the books this time. The list may be in some slight order but not really, whatever, who cares, here are twenty great books, a mixed bag:

  • 5 Novels
  • 5 Non fiction
  • 3 memoirs
  • 2 Graphic novels
  • 2 Graphic book of short stories
  • 1 regular book of short stories
  • 1 Books of essays
  • 1 autofiction

Tatty

  • Written by: Christine Dwyer Hickey
  • Format: Kindle

Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Tatty is the nickname of a young Irish girl whose eyes we view the world through. She’s daddy’s little girl. But definitely not mammy’s. Her parents are flawed and her home life is turbulent. Her world is full of arguing parents, alcoholism, mental health issues and too many siblings. No one parent is fully blamed. And I liked the nuance. The child’s perspective is sweet and funny in its innocence, and sometimes heartbreaking but never twee. And the view of the turbulent world never approaches the realms of misery lit either. This kind of story can easily go too far into many eye-rolling territories but Tatty never did. More than anything it depicts Tatty’s family in the 70s and 80s as an almost typical, rather than unique, poor Irish family whose parents should have drank less and probably procreated less too. 

Get it


Figuring

  • Written by: Maria Popova
  • Format: Audiobook, Non-fiction
  • Narrated by: Natascha McElhone

Figuring cover art

From the same author as the much loved Brainpicking’s Web site, Figuring is a serial biography of several women who pushed, and pushed against, the boundaries of science, literature, poetry, philosophy, women’s rights, gender, sexuality and environmentalism. Each biography would have been long enough to stand alone as a complete historical biography, yet the stories overlap and intertwine to become something broader. The writing is exquisite sentence by sentence, the opening paragraph a thing of wonder. I wasn’t fully won over by the sum of its parts. but it’s still a very worthwhile read. Figuring is essentially one very long love letter to these trailblazing (s)heroes who have a special place in Popova’s heart.

Get it


A History of Loneliness

  • Written by: John Boyne
  • Format: Kindle, Novel 

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

John Boyne seems to get into the odd ruckus on Twitter but there’s no denying his great writing. I’ve only read two so far and they’ve both been thoroughly entertaining. He has a great knack for seamlessy flipping between the serious and the hilarious. This is the story of the vile evil acts of the Catholic Church; my words not his, as this story is told through the eyes of one minor priest which adds a little bit of balance. I’d just as happily read a book that completely tears this institution to shreds but it’s an interesting insight to see a priest struggle with his conscience as he realizes what he has really signed up to.  

Currently going cheap on Kindle.

Get it


Surprisingly Down to Earth, and Very Funny: My Autobiography

  • Written by: Limmy
  • Format: Audiobook, Memoir
  • Narrated by: Limmy

Surprisingly Down to Earth, and Very Funny. cover art

I’ve been a big fan of Limmy since his website popped up in 2006 with lots of great Flash games and videos. I saw his first live show in Edinburgh, and was at his first book launch, and have  enjoyed pretty much everything he’s done including his two short story collections. Thinking back on all those moments made this audiobook all the more special and enjoyable. I couldn’t put it down. Limmy has such a unique way of looking at the world and talking about his experiences. He’s not afraid to tell you about all the times he was a complete shitebag, or all the times he seriously contemplated suicide, and lots more really intimate details in between all the amazing moments in the career of someone who started making funny stuff on his homepage and ended up making funny stuff for his own BBC tv show, writing several books and being an all-around hilarious fucking legend.  

Get it


Night Boat to Tangier

  • Written by: Kevin Barry
  • Format: Kindle

We all know Kevin Barry is a great writer and he writes great characters. These two gangsters are two of his best. They’re waiting (for Godot) to see if they can spot an absconded daughter who may be passing through this port in Tangier while reflecting on their own colourful lives.

Get it


Daisy Jones & The Six

  • Written by: 
  • Format: Taylor Jenkins Reid
  • Narrated by: Sara Arrington, Jennifer Beals, Arthur Bishop, Fred Berman, Benjamin Bratt, Jonathan Davis, Ari Fliakos, Holter Graham, Judy Greer, January Lavoy, Robinne Lee, Peter Larkin, Henry Leyva, P.J. Ochlan, Robert Petkoff

Daisy Jones and the Six cover art

Here’s the pitch: The memoir of a band told through talking-head style interviews with all the band members. That’s it. And it works great on audio. Daisy Jones and the Six are a fictitious Fleetwood Mac style band but it’s written and performed so well, that at times I thought I was listening to a podcast interview of real musicians from a real band. 

Get it


Problems

  • Written by: Jade Sharma
  • Format: Kindle, Fiction

Problems is about Maya, who most people will tell you is a drug addict. But she’s addicted to a lot of things: drugs, sex, love, men, sugar, drama, fucking shit up.

This is a brief snapshot of Maya’s life. She’s just about clinging to normal straight life when we meet her. She’s got a husband, a job, and a heroin habit that’s almost manageable. She’s at a crossroads. Or is it a T junction? Things could go either way. Will she go to heaven or hell? She actually goes to purgatory briefly by spending Thanksgiving with her Christian goody-two-shoe In-Laws for an extended scene (there are no chapters). We’re almost in romcom territory here before getting back to dark reality.

And although dark, Problems is also hilarious in places and thoroughly entertaining. It reminded me of Dept. of Speculation; if you were to start highlighting stand out bits, you’d just highlight the whole book.

Sadly Jade Sharma died this year. This is her only book.

Get it


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

  • Written by: Mary Roach
  • Format: Kindle, Non-fiction

Stiff by Mary Roach

I’ve said it before and I’ll try not say it again; Mary Roach and Bill Bryson are two people who write about interesting topics while never forgetting to be highly entertaining at the same time. (I have written entertaining many times in this list, it’s a key factor for me). I think Mary Roach could write about watching grass grow and still make it fascinating and hilarious. And when the topic is about dead bodies, humour surely helps, even though the darkly comic image of cadaver crash-test dummies almost writes itself. Like everything else in this book, the grim reality of that practice would be pure horror without a bit of gallows humour for distraction.

And after reading the chapter about converting your body to compost and using it to grow a tree, I think that’s the way to go for me! There’s only one place, so far, in Ireland that facilitate this: https://www.greengraveyard.com/

Get it


My Struggle, Book 5

  • Written by: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Don Bartlett – translator
  • Format: Audiobook, autofiction
  • Narrated by: Edoardo Ballerini

My Struggle, Book 5 cover art

I’ve written about this amazing epic autofiction series before. I only have one more to go. I’ve been stretching it out and very much looking forward to book 6. Book 5 is mostly about his time in the writing academy alongside his usual teen-like struggles with life. 

Get it


Driving Short Distances

  • Written & Illustrated by: Joff Winterhart
  • Format: Hardback, Graphic Novel

Lovely book about a college drop out who starts working with an older relative as they drive around various industrial estates and offices. A story of an odd  couple and their colliding worlds and their not-quite maybe-a-little bonding experience.

Get it


Constellations

  • Written by: Sinéad Gleeson
  • Format: Hardback, Essays & Poems

Notes to Self. There I said it. Wotcha gonna do about it? It’s very hard not to compare these two books of essays from contemporary Irish female writers writing about women’s bodies, grief, pain and all the sticky bits in between. But they are only similar at a high level, it’s like comparing two novels by two irish women. So of course these two books are very different in detail but both deserving the title of one of the books of their respective years. 

Get it


Beastie Boys Book

  • Written by: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz
  • Format: Audiobook
  • Narrated by: Steve Buscemi, Ada Calhoun, Bobby Cannavale, Exene Cervenka, Roy Choi, Jarvis Cocker, Elvis Costello, Chuck D, Nadia Dajani, Michael Diamond, Snoop Dogg, Will Ferrell, Crosby Fitzgerald, Randy Gardner, Kim Gordon, Josh Hamilton, Adam Horovitz, LL Cool J, Spike Jonze, Pat Kiernan, Talib Kweli, Dave Macklovitch, Rachel Maddow, Tim Meadows, Bette Midler, Mix Master Mike, NAS, Yoshimi O, Rosie Perez, Amy Poehler, Kelly Reichardt, John C. Reilly, Ian Rogers, Maya Rudolph, Rev Run, Luc Sante, Kate Schellenbach, MC Serch, Chloe Sevigny, Jon Stewart, Ben Stiller, Wanda Sykes, Jeff Tweedy and Philippe Zdar.

Beastie Boys Book cover art

This audiobook is amazingly good fun, with an insanely long cast of celebrities narrating what are mostly first-person anecdotes, which is an amusing combination; I burst out laughing when the very recognisable Steve Buscemi reminisced: “I joined the Beastie Boys in 1983”.

Most of the anecdotes, are either pretty funny, or musically interesting, and there are frequent tributes to the much loved Adam Yauch. In fact, flip that, a lot of the book seems like a swan song to Yauch, interspersed with a lot of amusing anecdotes from the other two.

It’s a chunky listen. It took me a month to get through. The sheer number of times an amazing track gets a name check will make you stop every few minutes to ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-check it out. So while the running time is nearly 11 hours, you should triple that if you’re going to check out half the music that gets a holler. There’s a Spotify playlist featuring 525 tracks mentioned weighing in at a hefty 37 hours and 18 minutes.  The audiobook is a real treat overall. Enjoy.

Get it


Sabrina, Beverly

  • Written by: Nick Drnasno
  • Format: Hardback, Graphic Novel

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Beverly by Nick Drnaso

Two graphic books here by the same author. 

Sabrina is a graphic novel about the depressed boyfriend of a missing woman, who is staying with an old school friend during our very present times of fact, fiction, truth, lies, and conspiracy theories.

Although I’ve read a good few graphic novels in the last two years, what really struck me about Nick Drnaso’s books is how much he can convey with a simple image, particularly some of the images without text. Your mind tends to fill in the blanks; what a character might be feeling, or thinking, or even doing. It really makes the graphic novel a completely separate entity from books, audiobooks, or movies. It can play with the concept of show-don’t-tell on a different level.

Beverly is more of a collection of darkly comic short stories but the characters are all from the same town and sometimes connected. 

Get Sabrina, Get Beverly


I’m a Joke and So Are You: A Comedian’s Take on What Makes Us Human

  • Written by: Robin Ince
  • Format: Kindle, Non-fiction

I'm a Joke and So Are You: Reflections on Humour and Humanity by [Ince, Robin]

Fantastic read exploring the human condition through the experiences of what makes a comedian a comedian. I love books like this where the author takes a relatively trivial subject and immerses themselves completely and explores the vast depths of humanity while trying to connect all the dots and answer some of the bigger questions. Who am I? What am I? Why am I? I loved this book. 

Get it


Tales from the Inner City

  • Written and painted by: Shaun Tan 
  • Format: hardback, graphic short stories

Image result for tales from the inner city

Shaun Tan books are something else. I don’t mean that figuratively, they are something other than books. The actual artefact of Tales From The Inner City is a book sure, a book with added illustrations – but it could just as easily be the other way around. It could also work as a large-scale exhibition of his paintings with some added text beside them on the wall. His surreal but wholly accessible paintings are quite stunning, and his surreal short stories are also things of wonder. They both compliment each other perfectly. And to have them tamed into this neat little entity called a book is a beautiful thing, it really is something else.

Get it


21 Lessons for the 21st Century

  • Written by: Yuval Noah Harari
  • Format: Audiobook
  • Narrated by: Derek Perkins

21 Lessons for the 21st Century cover art

Fascinating. Insightful. Scintillating. Terrifying. Important. Fiercely intelligent. Prescient guru fare.

(Though I suspect that a noticeably missing summary at the end of each lesson tells us this book was never conceived to be 21 discrete lessons in and that the title was most likely an afterthought. Still fantastic book though)

Get it


Room to Dream

  • Written by: David Lynch and Kristine McKenna 
  • Format: Audiobook & Unscripted commentary
  • David Lynch and Kristine McKenna 

Room to Dream cover art

It’s a weird kind of audiobook and I don’t mean Lynchean weird. Parts of Lynch’s life are written and narrated by the journalist Kristine McKenna, and then Lynch himself intermittently talks about the same period from his perspective. The McKenna parts sound oddly reminiscent of a voiceover from a cheap daytime TV biography – but at least they’re based on written material. Whereas Lynch’s parts are clearly ad libbed; reminiscing off the top of his head.

Now I’m very fussy about the definition of an Audiobook. I don’t know why I care but I do. Audiobooks are based on the written material of books. If it’s not based on written material it’s not an audiobook. Simple. It always gets my goat when someone asks for audiobook recommendations and people suggest West Cork, or similar. West Cork is a fantastic podcast. But it’s not an audiobook. Likewise for years Ricky Gervais was number one in the audiobook charts in iTunes. It wasn’t remotely anything to do with a book. I don’t know why this winds me up but it does.

Alas, at least half of Room to Dream is based on written material. So it passes. But it not only passes, I would say that Lynch’s ad hoc contributions are far more entertaining than the written material. ( Though I am confused about the whole process of writing the book – did the audiobook come first and then someone wrote down Lynch’s dialogue?).

Anyway…

Once I got past my various reservations, I just couldn’t get enough of this book. I just love listening to someone being so passionate about creativity, and Lynch is clearly a creative genius. And a creative addict. He just spends all his time creating. When he’s not directing, he’s creating most of the props for his sets. And when he’s not making movies or tv shows, he’s creating art of one kind or another. And I loved the stories about how his creativity manifested in various movie scenes.

I loved it. But totes jels. I would love to jack in the day job and just spend all day living the art life; creating art and music (again).

I also spent that whole month or so catching up on some of his work that I had not previously got around to watching. So it was a fantastically entertaining Lynch month overall.

Get it


Boulevard Wren and Other Stories

  • Written by: Blindboy Boatclub
  • Format: Hardback

According to modern sleep experts, our minds process our thoughts while we sleep, converting short-term memories into long-term memories, and processing our fears, anxieties, worries and other emotions from the day, essentially providing free therapy while we sleep. This mostly happens unconsciously, with occasional leaks into our consciousness which manifest as dreams.

 

I think Blindboy taps into the same experience, by absorbing our fears and anxieties at a cultural level and expressing them in surreal dreamlike fantasies which process those emotions in a way that regular straight fiction can’t quite express. Just like June Caldwell’s abstruse rage and Eimear McBride’s spiky irregular language expresses life’s anger and frustrations in a way that standard prose can’t quite touch, Blindboy’s imagination performs dream therapy on our existential angst, our environmental worries, and our everyday anxieties: like the OCD teenage boy who worries that his ardent chicken-choking is causing catastrophes, or the pensioners who become hypnotized by a dead dog and a bucket of maggots, or the artist so bereft by comparisons to her social media peers that she conjures up Donald Duck as an Airbnb landlord in an unconscious effort to create her best work.

I don’t want to give the impression that these are all fantasy dream stories. A good few are straight stories (like the beautifully touching “Gruyère in the Desmond” about a group of middle-aged men who meet in the pub to drink beer, eat cheese and inadvertently save each other from depression and suicide), but even the more fantastical stories are all cemented in realism and then nudged towards the edges of surrealism, but I think they all tap into the same unconscious ennui that our minds do when we sleep.

Collective Jungian Dream Therapy© aside, these are just great stories. When I was reading “Below in Joey Ramone”, about four isolated brothers who have formed a punk cargo-cult tribe with their own language and rituals, I was thinking “Fuck me, this is deadly”. I didn’t care how it ended or what happened on the next page. I was just loving every bit of the story as I read it. That’s a sign of great story-telling, and so rare. It reminded me of the best book ever: The Wasp Factory

Get it


Lost Connections

  • Written by: Johann Hari
  • Format: kindle

Mental health pre-amble

Before I get to the book, divulge me in some thoughts on mental health that have been on my mind this year. In the last couple of years my mental health has wavered a few times, never veering into serious mental illness, just something I needed to keep an eye on, and work on. I saw a therapist, I meditated daily, and practiced mindfulness in other forms. I journalled. I tried to get out into nature more. I got out for a long walk every day. I read various self-help books and did lots of running. All this stuff really helped.  

But I’ve noticed the occasional backlash on social media against some of these methods in the last year or so. There are a few different camps:

  1. Mentally well people who think it’s all a load of nonsense but don’t realise what a PRIVILEGE it is to be in a position to mock these mental health tools. 
  2. There’s a difference between people who use these tools to look after their mental health and people who have a diagnosed mental illness and need medication. Some of these people seem to have little time for non-medicinal mental health practices. But they seem to think this gives them license to slag off other mental health tools, despite their proven efficacy.    
  3. Lastly is the more valid gang of people who slag of the money-making corporate wellness industry. And sure, there is plenty of reason to be cynical here. But some of these people seem to rub their hands in glee when they come across any negative research about meditation or mindfulness, and the snide comments that accompany these comments often show their true colours as being really just a subset of the problematic first two gangs. 

I try  not to be an offended humourless git. But this gets my goat. I mostly keep it to myself. But I’m going to call this one more time. And then I’m going to stay Schtum on the subject once and for all: If you take glee in slagging off mindfulness, meditation, journalling etc, maybe have another think about the millions of people this shit genuinely helps from going over the edge, and have a think about your own privilege or slippy edge of superiority. 

There. Off my chest. Won’t mention it again.

The Book (Well, sorry, a bit more preamble that’s more related to the book)

I grew up with a mother diagnosed as manic depressive / bipolar who was basically a medication guinea-pig and also had electroshock therapy, and in her the only result I saw was a growing deterioration in brain function, though I still grew up arguing that depression is simply a chemical imbalance, nothing else. Then I had a severe anxiety disorder in my twenties. And my daughter has Selective Mutism / general anxiety. 

For a good few years now I’ve long had the gnawing feeling my daughter and many like her, an exponential number of young people with mental health problems, are more a product of a society that has lost the power of community and local family, and playing outdoors, and nature.

The Book (Definitely the book now)

I no way does Hari does want to banish the idea that for some people there can be a specific medical issue with their brain that needs to be fixed with medication. But – he argues that brain malfunction is just one of many factors of mental health issues or mental ilness. One of 9 causes. 

The problem is that because mental health medication is an €89 billion industry, the chemical solution is way overhyped and has dominated and quashed all other factors and solutions. Hari presents a longer list of factors that he’s come across in his research while talking to doctors, experts, researchers and patients:

Some credible scientists argue they [antidepressants] give some temporary relief to a minority of users, and that shouldn’t be dismissed. The false story is the claim that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and that the primary solution for most people is a chemical antidepressant.

Hari discusses nine disconnections in this book:
1. Disconnection from meaningful work
2. Disconnection from other people
3. Disconnection from meaningful values
4. Disconnection from childhood trauma
5. Disconnection from status and respect
6. Disconnection from the natural world
7. Disconnection from a hopeful or secure future
8. And 9. Real role of genes and brain changes

There is much more research out there to show that modern society, traumas and general life struggles contribute much more to our mental state. And although medication might help a small percentage, most research indicates that it is short term, or doesn’t work at all, or it doesn’t work as well as a lot of non-medication-based approaches. This is actually long-known by most experts. But it’s hard for them to get heard.

The World Health Organization—the leading medical body in the world—summarized the evidence well in 2011 when they explained: “Mental health is produced socially: the presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social, as well as individual, solutions.”

There are many reasons why a pill has become the easiest way to patch up mental health issues. But in most cases, it’s just a patch. On the whole modern society is much more imbalanced than our brains. We’re not designed to work 40 hour weeks in sometimes politically toxic environments, with shrinking communities, distant families, and spending more time looking at a screen than in nature or with friends, while continually being bombarded with bad news.   

Hari is careful to back up every chapter with peer-researched papers and interviews with plenty of mental health experts and patients.

I’m not sure I’ve done the book much justice here but he presents a very strong case for looking at all areas of our life and fixing those connections at a personal level, and hopefully at a social level. 

It’s a fascinating read. And thoroughly enjoyable too. Highly recommended. I think it’s the best book I’ve read on mental health. And my book of the year.

Get it


I cured my RSI / Fibromyalgia / Chronic Fatigue with Jedi Mind tricks!

I’m never too sure if it’s a good idea writing about such personal matters or not. It’s not that I’ve the slightest problem talking about them. It’s more a wonder if people would rather I just shut up and keep this stuff to myself. But this is a conversation I keep having with friends lately when they ask “how’s things?”, a story I’ve found myself telling over and over recently. What’s often surprising is not that people don’t know that I have finally recovered… but how few people knew I’ve really been struggling with chronic pain for about 15 years. That’s the thing with chronic pain. It’s a bit like mental illness; They’re both invisible, hard to define, hard to label, and therefore hard to communicate with any great accuracy. So you tend not to talk about them much. A lot of my pain only happened while I was at work, so it was mostly separate from social life. Though I remember at one stage I could hardly even hold a pint glass.

What the hell are you talking about anyway?

Ok – between 2002 and 2005 I started getting agonising pain in my arms and neck, which I’ve had on and off since then. I always thought it was Repetitive Strain Injury, as it started when I was doing a temp data entry job with badly designed software that required me to repetitively strain my fingers across certain key combinations for a few months. A diagnosis of RSI seemed like a no brainer. But I also got sore legs if at a desk all day, and massively fatigued when standing or walking, or just general fatigue.

What did you do about it?

I spent years going to doctors, physios, chiropractors, massage therapy, more physios, and physios who were “experts in RSI”. I read books about RSI. I bought every goddamn crazy keyboard, mouse and input device over the years. I had a weird back brace and arm splints. I had pain-relieving gel packs and sprays. I bought all kinds of exercise gear, self-massage equipment, and ergonomic bits and bobs. I spent hours doing stretches and exercises. I tried yoga. I became an expert in ergonomics. I had some occasional success, which in hindsight was a temporary placebo. But lots of people used to ask me for advice about RSI. And I even had a Web site about “Beating RSI”. But the pain always came back. I got rid of the Web site. The pain got really bad again. At its worst, I often felt like cutting off my biceps off with a knife. Not that I actually would of course but that’s what it felt like. And pain that bad is very tiring. So terrible chronic fatigue came with the chronic pain. And with that would come occasional depression. Not proper clinical depression, just a great sense of doom & misery while I was in pain.

Woo Goggles

In 2009 I bought a book I kept hearing about called “The Mindbody Prescription” by Doctor John Sarno. It was all about healing pain with the mind. There were a lot of success stories all over the Internet by people recovering from RSI with this method. It turned out even my father-in-law had a copy and it helped with his back pain. But I have never had any time for alternative medicine, or faith healing, or religion. Or anything like that. I was always very Anti “woo”. No time for it whatsoever. I was/am a complete cynic. So I dismissed it as something that might work for other people but could never work for me. The baby sat in that dirty bathwater for many years.

2018

Roll on to 2018 and my pain was worse than ever. So I tried the GP route again. She thought I had Fibromyalgia. I had all the symptoms. But she sent me for a cat scan to rule out anything physical. The scan revealed trapped nerves and slipped disks in my neck. But the GP still thought it was Fibromyalgia (Btw “Fibromyalgia” is a bit of a scapegoat disease. It’s for people who are in lots of pain and fatigue and lots of other symptoms but doctors can’t really figure out why). We try physio one more time. After a few months, the physio shakes her head like many others and apologises. She couldn’t do anything for me. Couldn’t figure out what the pain is from. Just before her, I had an appointment with another private physio who couldn’t find anything wrong but asks me “What’s going on in your life?”.

This question from a physio.

Taking off the Woo Googles

So I had spent 15 or so years trying every possible physical option apart from invasive surgery. I bought all the hardware. I did all the physio. I did all the stretching. I had the best ergonmic setup. I’d seen all the experts. I did everything physically possible.

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

Sherlock Holmes.

So I started to become more convinced that there was something else going on here and that all my separate health issues were somehow connected: Physical pain. Chronic Fatigue. Indigestion. Dizzy spells. Misophonia. Anxiety. Stress. And finally realizing that no physical solution was going to work. Time to crack open that book again; The Mind Body Prescription, and oh my fucking god, the guy starts describing me to a tee. He starts by asking if I’m the type of person who has always worried too much what other people think of me, if I’m a perfectionist, and a people pleaser. He’s got my attention. He then explains that TMS (Tension myositis syndrome ) is highly prominent with people like me. The idea he has discovered is that the autonomic nervous system has developed to deal with modern day stresses by creating physical pain to distract us from emotional thoughts, and traumas we have never properly processed.

Back to 2005/6

So I started thinking back to when the pain started and it’s all so goddamn obvious in hindsight. It was nothing to do with data entry. Here’s what was happening at the same time:

  • Living with the misery of infertility and month after month of failed pregnancies, and failed IUIs and IVF
  • Multiple miscarriages
  • A manipulative project manager from hell
  • Father had died
  • Unbelievable family stress. Another family member moved into my mum’s house and forced her out from her own home, first into St. John of Gods Psychiatric hospital, then a nursing home she was too young for. We couldn’t get him out of the house. This went on for almost two years before we settled outside a court with a big pay off to get him out. Meanwhile, my mum had a stroke, and so ultimately did need a nursing home
  • Worst of all was that while we were fighting for the welfare of my mum, he had somehow convinced many other family members that we were the bad guys. He even signed her into one of many nursing homes under our name; proper Machiavellian shit. And that’s just a very brief summary. I found all this incredibly stressful.
  • I’ve also a long history of social anxiety that I was mostly over by then but not fully

All this in the same year or so. This was when my “RSI” got really bad.

(But even everyday stresses can build up and ultimately cause TMS. It doesn’t have to be anything major.)

Back to the future

Back to more recent times. The start of 2018: my pain is worse than ever. I now have a daughter who’s mental health issues have become increasingly worse, which has been causing chaos and misery for herself and the whole family. And no surprise (as any statistic on parents of children with special needs will tell you) this creates incredible marital strain also. Oh and remember the mother situation from 2005? Well we (my wife has been wonderful in this regard) are still looking after her. My mother also has mental health and behavioural issues which can be incredibly stressful to manage. Let’s chuck in a teenager and a midlife crisis for the laugh.

ENOUGH

So it was all in your head?

No no no no. The physical pain was very real. But the root cause was emotional. Did you ever get the shakes or a funny stomach before public speaking? Is that all in your head? No – but the root cause of that is also emotional. This is the exact same thing. Just more complex.

It’s not a trapped nerve. It’s not a slipped disk. It’s not fibromyalgia. It’s not RSI. It’s just emotions. It’s an evolutionary mixup. Our lizard brain still hasn’t quite managed how to deal with modern stress and this it’s best attempt. (Recent post-morten studies have revealed that most people have slipped disks and bone structure issues that have NOT expressed as pain.) But to be clear, the brain actually causes real pain in your neck, arms, back, whatever. It’s not in your head.

Nicole Sachs has a fantastic way of putting it: “the pain isn’t in your head but the solution isn’t in your body”

Yeah stress can make everything worse, we know that. So what?

No this isn’t stress making things worse. The idea here is that stress, repressed rage and emotions are the sole cause of the pain. Particularly with long-running chronic pain. Or pain that continues long after the typical healing time.

Treatment

So how do you treat TMS ( Tension Myoneural Syndrome / aka The Mindbody Syndrome )? Lots of stuff: Knowledge. Acceptance. Dealing with emotions. Expressing emotions properly.

So like a cripple throwing away his crutches, I got rid of my ergonomic keyboard, my stupid mouse and my lumbar roll. I stopped doing RSI stretches, and ergonomic exercises. I stopped physio exercises. I never went back to the doctor my pain (she’s actually a really good doctor though, just didn’t know about TMS). I read a good few books by TMS experts. I watched a movie called All The Rage. I joined a fantastic TMS support group. I started seeing a psychotherapist. I started journaling about emotions. I learned to cry more. I meditated more. I started running and exercising more. I read self-help books about stuff like self-compassion. I went all in. A younger me would have been in hysterics at this new age zen master eejit. I really wouldn’t have had any time for any of this stuff twenty or so years ago. And most other people finding success with these methods are also down to earth people. This isn’t the latest fad in hippy woo.

So what happened?

My pain went away!

Not 100%. But the worst of it slowly ebbed away month after month. I certainly didn’t want to cut my biceps off with a knife any more. My chronic fatigue went away. I stopped having indigestion. Running pains in my legs/knees went away. Dizzy spells stopped. My feelings of having a midlife crisis and finding work stressful went away. I’ve hardly even had a cold all year. I still can’t believe it – but it really worked. This isn’t woo. TMS makes scientific sense but it’s very hard to test properly, so modern western medicine is still very cynical about Sarno’s work. Not surprising given that it undermines so much modern medicine. Particularly medication. But there’s nothing to sell here except knowledge.

I started all this last January. And a year later, my life is very different. Not perfect by a long shot. All the same daily stressors are still there. But how I deal with them is quite different now. And it doesn’t result in physical pain any more. Well not much. I’m still a work in progress.

So “how’s things?” You ask?

Grand – yerself?

update: October 2019. I’m pretty 99% free of chronic pain


Resources:

All The Rage (Saved by Sarno) from rumur on Vimeo.

This stuff isn’t new. Here’s an ABC special about Doctor Sarno from 1999.

If you have a passing interest, I highly recommend Eddy Lindenstein’s Mind and fitness podcast. A very down to earth podcast interviewing lots of experts and doctors in this growing field of medicine:https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-mind-and-fitness-podcast/id1291091376?mt=2

The Mindbody Prescription by Doctor John Sarno
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/33644161-the-mindbody-prescription

Where it all began

The Great Pain Deception: Faulty Medical Advice Is Making Us Worse by Steven Ray Ozanich
https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2242264234?book_show_action=false&from_review_page=1
A patient come expert and one of the leading thinker in this area now

The Meaning of Truth by Nicole Sachs
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31130757-the-meaning-of-truth
The title is very Oprah-esque but this is a great little book about dealing with this stuff via journalling. Spoiler: write down your darkest rage-filled thoughts that you would never show anyone. Then burn it / delete it.

“A little more conversation, a little less action”

Two of the best movies I’ve seen this year were coincidentally “dramaheist” movies. But as these things tend to go, that may be more zeitgeist than coincidence. I loved American Animals earlier in the year; a student art-heist movie, which brought some fresh blood to the true crime genre by frequently cutting away to talking-head documentary scenes of the true-life subjects.

Last night I saw Widows. The premise is about a bunch of women recently widowed by a robbery-gone-wrong involving their criminal husbands, which forces them into a situation where they have to contemplate taking on a heist themselves. Now imagine this was made by the creators of The Wire; characters you actually care about playing this out as a proper gritty drama. It’s not by David Simon but with Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn at the helm, the calibre isn’t far off.

Back to American Animals. There’s one scene in where they completely take the piss of an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist; stylishly choreographed action sequences, perfectly synced to phat beatz and shit punchlines. But it’s a brief fantasy scene before reality kicks back in and we see what it might actually be like for regular people to attempt a crime like this.

This scene reads like the funeral of shallow Hollywood cheesefests; all style and no content-that-anyone-actually-cares about, and the birth of an era where even action heist movies are played out with authentic drama and real bite. It’s also a final nail in the coffin of men-led action-movie yawn-a-thon. The actors playing the widows outshine the husbands so much that it’s actually laughable. It may even be deliberate. It’s like the men are in a different movie, chewing the scenery, awful accents, and stuck in a time warp of crap action movies, leaving the finer acting to the leading ladies. More of this please. All of this.

The Glistening

My name is Cathy Grogan; not a typical vampire name but I try to blend in. Tryzkandelle ile Zlatok is the name I was born with. I’ve had many names since. But Cathy Grogan is the name I’ve chosen for this stage in my life. A life in which I’ve continually had to adapt to survive. I’ve had to learn new languages. I’ve had to teach myself to speak with perfect accents. I’ve had to accustom myself to many dress codes and fashions. That’s the easy stuff.

But here’s what I want to share with you; one of the greatest secrets about being a vampire is that vampire laws mutate. They’re not even laws. They have more in common with an obsessive-compulsive disorder than they do with laws of vampiric nature. Sure; we need to drink human blood to survive. That fact of life never changes. It’s the societal laws that change. At one stage we couldn’t enter a home without being invited. This was more reflective of a time when it would be unthinkable for a regular person to enter a home without being invited. This is a custom we fixated upon for some time and culturally passed on through the generations. We could, of course, enter a home without being invited but the stress and agitation this caused, would permeate every cell in our body. The stress was so extreme that the physical response would go way beyond a fast heartbeat and shortness of breath. Every cell in our body would agitate, an internal sensation which, in levels of discomfort, far exceeds physical pain. This stress would manifest itself physically in myriad ways including the seepage of blood from our eye sockets. As society changed, so did our attachment to this one rule. It took many generations to change but eventually, it ebbed away like a slowly receding echo. The closest vampire law to this in modern times is that it’s practically impossible for a vampire to visit a house unannounced, without first calling ahead, or sending a text. Such as it is that vampire laws are closely linked to societal norms.

Of course, we have many other laws that don’t closely relate to typical human social norms. It’s hard to know how these came to be; Vampires cannot drive a car unless they are in a country whose motorists drive on the left-hand side of the road and we cannot sleep unless we have seen three magpies the previous day (without actively seeking them out). It’s hard to communicate that these ever-evolving rules are neither superstitions nor OCD tics. Nor are they tacit laws. With vampires, these traits evolve and devolve like an antibiotic resistance to bacteria. They become embedded in our DNA and we have no control over their development or cessation. They start as a social meme and then become embedded in our physiology. Ok, some of them start with regular superstitions or OCD traits, or social codes, but once vampires get infected, these become hardcoded, and as discussed can sometimes have very real physiological effects.

The worst example of this is in modern years is something we call The Glistening; the autonomic extension of our fangs. We once had complete control over extending our blood-sucking teeth. We could extend and retract them at will. But now they can only extend if a human gives us a particular request. A vocal request that has a physical response. This request is to smile. When we are sequestered to smile by a human, we cannot refuse, but the unfortunate side effect is that our smile bears our teeth, and then our fangs extend against our will. This is a very modern anomaly. It became imbibed in our DNA at an alarmingly rapid rate; just under a decade. Just as we cannot seek out magpies, we cannot trick people into telling us to smile. In fact, it is very hard to Glisten under any circumstances other than walking down a street, and a complete stranger giving us this instruction without the slightest hint of invitation on our part.

This is perilous to our breed. If a stranger does not tell us to smile, we don’t Glisten. If we don’t Glisten, we cannot feed. If we cannot feed, we die. Male vampires are a dying breed. There aren’t many of us left. The continuation of our race depends on a particular type of man, himself a dying breed; one who is attached to stereotypical notions of his gender. These men are becoming harder and harder to resist. For example, I only need to feed every 4 or 5 days. I fed yesterday but just couldn’t help myself today. I was running late for a movie that I really wanted to see and I was becoming quite agitated. I was going past a block of shops which had a bus stop right in front of the shops. It’s an awkward manifestation of bad planning. The people waiting at the bus stop inadvertently block the path. There was a sole man at the bus stop doing just this; somehow blocking the whole path just by himself. He saw me coming and made no effort to let me pass. Then as I tried to get by, stressed and agitated, he said: “Fuck’s sake love, a smile wouldn’t kill you! G’wan gimme a smile”.

I did as requested. I showed him my teeth, and then my beautiful glorious special teeth, my shards of sustenance. The last smile he would ever see made his own own smile disappear so quickly, it was like it never existed. In a blink, I had him dragged behind the shops, and though I wasn’t even hungry, within minutes I had completely drained his body of blood. Like my old friend Zlotan used to say in his later years “Never pass a toilet without using it, and never ever waste a Glistening”.

So gentlemen, never change. Please. Keep telling us to smile.

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)

The worst day of my life started when I was home alone up in my attic bedroom. 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 it’s 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.  And I wasn’t able to describe how I felt with the mental health vocabulary I have today. And I made, what would turn out to be a terrible mistake, by using the word paranoia instead of  anxiety or self-conscious to describe how I felt. In turn they kept casually mentioning Schizophrenia and prescribing antipsychotic medication even though I had ZERO schizophrenia or psychotic symptoms. They were just chucking all kinds of pills at me. Each dose of medication had zero positive effect and many terrible side effects. Some were almost worse than the illness they were supposed to 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 gave me a sickening restlessness. When I sat, I wanted to stand and when I stood, I had to walk, and when I walked, I wanted to sit again and when I sat again I’d just rock back and forth. You’ve seen Crazy People doing that haven’t you? Well they’re not crazy people. They’ve just been given crazy medication which inflicts this horrid restlessness medically known as Akathisia.

Next on the list was an injection to counteract the Akathisia. 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 quite an extreme side-effect and only happens to rare individuals.  Maybe it also happens when you give people the completely wrong drugs. The side-effect is know as an “Acute Dystonic Reaction” and is known to happen with Mellaril, an extreme medication for Schizophrenia!

So back to when it started, up in 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, finally 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 IT’S 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 (in a phone printing factory) since I got sick. 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.  And many many many years later I discovered things like meditation, exercise, journalling, good friends, mental health research, emotional intelligence and having a healthy sleep routine, all of which are a great help. Much better than being incorrectly medicated. End of story.

/trontsephore

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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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!

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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. 

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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!

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it


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.

Get it

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.