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.
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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.

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.
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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.
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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.

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.

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

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

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.
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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.

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.


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.


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.

We are all completely beside ourselves (Audiobook)

I really enjoyed this. In fact 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. Karen Joy Fowler is a very smart writer. There is much discourse here on psychology and memory. And there are a lot of books in the last decade that deal with similar topics, but this one is wrapped around an interesting story with great characters also, and I just knew from the first page that I was in good hands, and me and Karen Joy Fowler were on the same page, and that’s the main thing.


Silas Marner – Audiobook & Kindle

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

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

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

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

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

Joaquin Phoenix’s Forehead

OMG! I completely forgot about this childhood thing where I used to hang upside down and tell friends to look at my hair as if it’s a beard and my forehead as if it’s a mouth…. Doesn’t that look hilarious? And they’d go just give me this look as if *I* was the crazy one.

Now someone’s done it with Joaquin Phoenix’s Forehead. And it IS hilarious. So fuck all y’all. 

Memrise 100 Dublin Streets explainer

I created a course on Memrise called 100 Dublin streets. Here’s an explainer:

What’s Memrise?
A site that makes it very easy to memorize lists of items. It’s good for learning languages but also Trivia like learning all the capitals of the world.

It starts by showing you Flashcards



And then what?
Then it will test you on what you’ve learned. More frequently at first. Then the tests go farther apart until the item is in your long term memory.



Big deal. Is that it? 

No. What memrise is really good at is that it provides an extra crutch to help memorise things which is great if you’ve a bad memory. It uses mnemonics  called “mems”.  You can add you own or use other people’s mems.


And why did you create a course for Dublin streets? 

Because I’ve a head like a sieve, and  I’m particularly bad at names of streets for some reason. And I was sick of forgetting the names of various streets. Now I know them all!

I see. Anything else?

There are 9 levels. It starts with the really easy streets that everyone knows, even me! just to get you warmed up, you can always ignore these, there is an ignore button. It starts getting a little bit more interesting by level 3.


Give it a go. Memrise is free. And you can set up an account very quickly.

Women, Charles Bukowski (Audiobook)


I think if I read this when I was much younger, I might have found it a bit rebellious and exciting. All the sex, drugs and… rock ‘n roll poetry. But I just found that one sexual encounter after another got a bit repetitive and sometimes boring. Yet there was something alluring about it also, and it dipped in and out of places that had a lot more depth than some old drunk fucking yet another notch on a bed post.

The protagonist, Henry Chinaski is a womanising drunk. I know I’m supposed be repelled by him, but he’s one of those enigmas; a character who is repulsive yet also possesses an odd magnetic charm. There’s a gritty honesty, an acerbic wit, and a couldn’t-give-a-fuck-what-anyone-else-thinks approach to life that I can’t help admiring and envying in people like this.

His attitude to women is also a bit of an enigma. I think it would be too easy to look at how Chinaski treats women, and dismiss him as a misogynist. And going by some reviews, many have. But that’s too black and white. How can you call someone a woman hater who also so clearly LOVES women emphatically. Good / bad. Black / white. Evil / goodness. It’s somewhere in that grey area that lie truly interesting characters. And I think that’s what makes Women an interesting read even if it did get quite repetitive in places.

As for the narrator. It was a perfect tone. This guy spends the whole book sounding hungover and grumpy. You can listen to a sample here.


Open, by Andre Agassi (Audiobook)

I heard a lot of good things about Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography. And right from the opening pages I thought wow, this is great. Agassi is a really good writer, with interesting thoughts, and a fascinating life, which makes for a perfect autobiography; a fascinating insight into a someone’s life full of little nuggets of life lessons they’ve learned.

I have to admit, as someone with no interest in sport I did get a little bit bored with the tennis bits occasionally, and overall felt that it could have been shortened. Some of the tennis stuff got so repetitive, for me, that I didn’t even notice when I had accidentally skipped a huge chunk of the audiobook. I only noticed the great leap when he started talking about girlfriends again and he was suddenly with Stefi Graf, and not Brook Shields.

What also makes this a brilliantly essential autobiography are some startling revelations, not least of which, revealed from the very start, is that Agassi has despised tennis all his life and was driven to tennis stardom by a father who cared of nothing else but to have a tennis champ for a son.