Friday, 6 December 2019

Friday Friyay: Samanta Schweblin's 'Fever Dream'

Fever DreamIt's my first Friday back in Europe for an extended work/vacation trip and I think I've just about gotten used to the time difference and the fact that it's still so dark here every morning! I'd just about forgotten that since it feels like it's always light at 6am in Shanghai. Anyway, let's get this Friday show on the road with Book Beginnings at Rose City Reader, hosted by Gilion Dumas, and Friday 56 at Freda's Voice, hosted by Freda. Today I'm featuring Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream. I adored her short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, it was one of my favourites this year, so I jumped on this book the moment I found it. 
A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.
Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.
Perfect Christmas read, no?



BB:

'They're like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It's the boy who's talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
Earthworms?
No, another kind of worms.' 1%

Usually I make the whole quote italic and indented, but this is how it was in the novel and I wanted to keep the format. I like the interplay between the voices, how we initially don't know who is who until she clarifies for us. It's also already addressed one of my least  favourite things ever, the feeling that something is crawling on or, even worse, in you.

F56:
'Your mother tells me that the dog made it to the stairs of your house, and sat there for almost a whole afternoon. She says she asked you about the dog several times, and each time you replied that the dog wasn't the important thing.' 56%
I didn't include the rest of the paragraph because it felt slightly spoiler-y and sad. I haven't reached this far into the book yet, but I'm curious what this section is about. I'm thinking this will be a metaphor for something she has left behind, perhaps a certain loyalty or trust. Or maybe it's just a really sad moment in which she ignores her dog.


And as always, there is the gem that is Book Blogger Hop, hosted over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer.

           
Book Blogger Hop
Do you keep your TBR book stack on a separate shelf from your already read books or are they mixed? - Elizabeth @ Silver Reviews 

Since I mostly read on my Kindle these days, my TBR stack is a digital one. I do have a separate collection for my TBR NetGalley reads, and I move them to a "read" collection once I'm done. But everything else is just in thematic folders and all mixed up. I enjoy trawling through books to find the one I want to/have to read. 

When it comes to the physical books, my apartment unfortunately doesn't have a proper bookshelf, so they are all jumbled together on different window sills, tables and even on boxes made to look like furniture. I kind of love the scattered aesthetic though, I can find a book at any random moment and get lost in it. And that's how I like it!

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Short Review: 'Dungeons & Drawings: An Illustrated Compendium of Creatures' by Blanca Martínez de Rituerto; Joe Sparrow

Dungeons & Dragons is having a major revival this decade, in large part thanks to Stranger Things and shows like Critical Role. I'm a not so secret Fantasy-lover, so D&D has always been on my radar even if I haven't actively played it in years. In their Dungeons & Drawings de Riuerri and Sparrow re-imagine creatures from folklore old and new. Thanks to Andrews McMeel Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/12/2019
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Who hasn’t been fascinated by monsters? This book collects some of the best creatures from Dungeons & Dragons, setting them out in an informative illustrated bestiary for beginners and enthusiasts alike.
Whether they’re beasts, spirits, demons, or even aliens, most fantasy worlds are filled with monsters. Some are harmless—many more are deadly. Luckily for the discerning adventurer, this book is here to help distinguish between the two. As a popular series sold at conventions and on Etsy, animators Blanca Martinez de Riuerro and Joe Sparrow have compiled three volumes into one deluxe edition. Each creature comes with a full-color illustration, a set of simplified statistics, a description, and a history section indicating its folkloric history and the scientific phenomena that may have influenced its creation. With creatures like the Archdevil, Dryad, Fire Bat, Gold Dragon, Smoke Devil, Bomb Plant, Ettin, and Spirit Fox, any tabletop player will find the perfect creature for their next campaign.
Martínez de Rituerto and Sparrow started off posting drawings online after discovering they shared a passion for tabletop RPGs and Dungeons & Drawings is very much a best-of collection. Each creature, be it spirit, monster or alien, gets a brilliant drawing that draws (ha!) both on the folklore and legends around it as well as on more modern visuals. The drawings are very easy on the eye and somehow very recognizable, yet that belies how intricate they are as well. Martínez de Rituerto and Sparrow didn't go for the easy get with their drawings, often highlighting features of the creature that have been overlooked before. Dungeons & Drawings walks the line between nerdy excitement and artistic venture. It's as much about the art as about the creatures, which means that those looking for an in-depth bestiary or for a Dungeons & Dragons starter guide, will probably be disappointed.

Dungeons & Drawings covers the world, with creatures from Japan, Mexico, Ireland and everywhere in between. Each creature's illustration is prefaced by a short introduction that rates it, according to different, partly Dungeons & Drawings-related categories. How dangerous are they, are they smart or can you outwit them? The introductions give you an idea of how they might be defeated and what their powers are. It also digs into the the history of the creatures' names, the different regions from which it hails and the different forms in which it can be found. I loved those sections  the best, as a lot of creatures actually have a fascinating background story.

I give this compendium...

3 Universes!

Dungeons & Drawings is a beautiful compendium of mythological creatures with modern but layered illustrations. It's perfect for those looking for a stunning book to lead through to gather some inspiration for their own RPG games.

Review: 'Mothers: Stories' by Chris Power

Short stories are beautiful. They are also very hard to write well. You have to encapsulate all the feeling and all the necessary plot in a few pages, rather than in hundreds of them. Writers such as Chris Power use short stories to give a reader a window into a character's life, building moment upon moment to gently drive home a message. It doesn't always work, but in this case, it does. Thanks to Farrar, Strauss & Giroux and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/02/2019
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
An “extraordinary” (The Sunday Times) debut of unnerving beauty, Chris Power’s short story collection Mothers evokes the magic and despair of the essential human longing for purpose. 
Chris Power’s stories are peopled by men and women who find themselves at crossroads or dead ends—characters who search without knowing what they seek. Their paths lead them to thresholds, bridges, rivers, and sites of mysterious, irresistible connection to the past. A woman uses her mother’s old travel guide, aged years beyond relevance, to navigate on a journey to nowhere; a stand-up comic with writer’s block performs a fateful gig at a cocaine-fueled bachelor party; on holiday in Greece, a father must confront the limits to which he can keep his daughters safe. Braided throughout is the story of Eva, a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations. 
Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment. Suffused with yearning, Power’s transcendent prose expresses a profound ache for vanished pasts and uncertain futures.
I need to once again start a review with a confession. There was some time between me receiving this collection and me starting it, which means that by the time I began reading the first story I thought this whole collection was about ... you guessed it, mothers. There are a lot of mothers in Mothers, but they aren't about mothers, per se. The collection is grounded by three stories that make up the beginning, middle and end: 'Mother 1: Summer 1976', 'Mother 2: Innsbruck' and 'Mother 3: Eva'. I once again have to confess I wasn't sure they were all related until I saw it confirmed in other reviews. I saw how the stories were connected but didn't trust myself enough to truly make these connections. Perhaps that is the point, however. Not all stories, or novels, are meant to give you a clear moral or a straightforward line of events. In Mothers Power sets out not to explain why we have difficult relationships or why we are unhappy. Rather, his stories shows us how his characters are in these difficult moments, how they are unhappy, each in their own way, and then leaves the reader carrying the stories with them.

In Mothers Chris Power shows the reader a set of characters who are all at a crossroad. They are drifting or stuck, searching without quite realizing it, about to be lost for good. The stories in Mothers aren't uplifting. Some of them are actually very bleak. In 'The Crossing' Ann and Jim are hiking and while the outer landscape is beautiful, something ugly is growing inside. There is a dissatisfaction there, a desire for something, anything, to happen. In 'The Colossus of Rhodes' the something ugly that grows is long overdue after having been repressed. In all the other stories, much like the triptych of Mother stories, are about remembrance and about being alone. 'The Haväng Dolmen' was one of my favourites as it combines the bleakness of the other stories with a terrifying undercurrent of horror. I think the lack of resolution in the stories, either story-wise or emotionally, means that reading Mothers leaves the reader with nowhere to go, nowhere to place the stories and therefore no way to let go off the bleakness.

It took me some time to get used to Chris Power's style in Mothers. Many of the narrators in this collected are very reserved, which means many of the stories are without high emotions. Each of the stories occur at a crossroads, where important and life changing things happen, but those moments seem to pass by, noticed but hardly commented upon. These things simply happen and there is only so much we can do about it. The stories are very calm and therefore may not be for everyone. The internal voices of the narrators are everything, which means that Powers manages to convey the claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in your own brain, of being somehow immobilized. There is some absolutely stunning moments of imagery and true realization in Mothers, which did make it a rewarding read despite occasionally struggling with some of the stories.

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

Mothers was a very interesting collection of stories, all related in theme and mood, but also vastly different. Many of these stories will fill you with unease, but Powers brings in beauty just often enough to reward perseverance.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Review: 'Lock Me In' by Kate Simants

I love me a good thriller, especially one in which our protagonist begins to question their own sanity. We all have moments where we doubt the things we see or hear, and I love exploring that emotion in fiction. Lock Me In first grabbed my attention with its cover and blurb, but there is a lot more to Simants' debut than meets the eye. Thanks to Harper Impulse, One More Chapter and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/3/2019
Publisher: Harper Impulse and Killer Reads; One More Chapter

Whatever you do, don’t open the door… By day, Ellie Power has a normal life. She has a stable home, a loving boyfriend, a future. But at night, she suffers from a sleep disorder. She becomes angry, unpredictable, violent. Her mother locks Ellie in her bedroom every night, to keep them both safe. Then one morning, Ellie wakes up, horrified to find the lock on her bedroom door smashed from the inside. She is covered in injuries, unable to remember anything about the night before. And her boyfriend Matt is nowhere to be found…
Lock Me In is a novel about hidden trauma and repressed memory. Ellie has no recollection of her fugues, the nights she loses to her sleep disorder, but she can feel they must be horrible, shameful even. This topic of fear and repression, of perhaps being your own worst nightmare and not being able to trust yourself, is a brilliant take by Simants. As a debut author she really managed to find a theme that will somehow strike a chord with every reader. Every person, family, culture and country has some underlying trauma that we tell ourselves stories about, that we lie about, things we lock away until they become too big to face.Towards the end of the novel, Simants explores this theme on a much bigger level, which surprised and intrigued me. Without spoiling anything, it was a great way of connecting the narrative to the real world. It's a surprisingly emotional topic for a psychological thriller, but one that will definitely engage the reader.

The narrative of Lock Me In is split between two different narrators. Ellie Powers narrates her own experiences in the first person, giving us an insight into her psyche as she begins to lose confidence in herself and everything she's been told. She has been locked in, by herself, by her mother, and by her own experiences. The second string of the narrative is told by DS Ben Kwon Mae who is investigating the disappearance of Ellie's boyfriend. Ellie and Ben have a history, which allows for the two of them to build up quite an interesting relationship. In Ben's case, it is a little harder to initially see how his own personal story plays into the theme of trauma and repression. It's worth waiting for though, because once Simants begins to unravel more of his background it definitely pays off. There is a twist towards the end of the novel, of course, which you will anticipate slightly if you have experience with the genre. The ending and some of the reveals feel a little too neat at times, but this can be forgiven with it being a debut. It also helps that Lock Me In is utterly gripping nonetheless.

This is Simants' debut novel, but there is a confidence to her writing that is envy-inducing. She ramps us the suspense slowly but surely and you find yourself caring more and more about both narrators. At times Ellie falls a little bit flat as a narrator, but this makes some sense considering her entire life has seen her locked in. Lock Me In feels like only part of the story, and this is a good thing! There is clearly a past to both Ellie and Ben that Simants makes real to the reader. As mentioned above, the past and what it means is the major theme in Lock Me In and Simants employs it very well. She avoids falling into certain thriller/suspense traps, like vilifying mental illness or making it a convenient excuse, which I really appreciated. Lock Me In made me really excited for Kate Simants future work.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Lock Me In is a gripping read that will have you thinking and wondering whenever you're not reading it. It's a great debut by Simants and the perfect read for anyone looking for a more suspenseful book over Christmas.

Review: 'Grandmothers' by Salley Vickers

I first heard about this novel when it was listed somewhere as a must-read. Admittedly, that is how I find many of my reads, but Grandmothers is a novel I potentially wouldn't have picked up otherwise. I'm veyr glad I was inspired to, however, as Grandmothers was a surprisingly heartwarming read. Thanks to Penguin Books, Vintage and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/7/2019
Publisher: Penguin Books; Vintage
The new novel from Salley Vickers, Sunday Times bestselling author of The Librarian 
Grandmothers is the story of three very different women and their relationship with the younger generation: fiercely independent Nan, who leads a secret life as an award-winning poet when she is not teaching her grandson Billy how to lie; glamorous Blanche, deprived of the company of her beloved granddaughter Kitty by her hostile daughter-in-law, who finds solace in rebelliously taking to drink and shop lifting; and shy, bookish Minna who in the safety of shepherd's hut shares with her surrogate granddaughter Rose her passion for reading. The outlook of all three women subtly alters when through their encounters with each other they discover that the past is always with us and that we go on learning and changing until the very end. 
Grandmothers is a beautifully observed, sometimes subversive, often tender and elegiac novel from the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Librarian. 
Grandmothers don't get half as much attention in fiction as they deserve. Fairy tales are full of dead mothers, evil step-mothers and kind godmothers, but grandmothers are rather sparse on the ground. I struggled to think of a novel I'd read where grandmothers, or grandparents for that matter, played a major role. One of the things I've enjoyed about living in China is seeing how interconnected the different generations of Chinese families are. Grandparents are very involved in the lives of their grandchildren, perhaps more so than where I grew up and I can definitely see the benefits of that. Of course there are downsides to that as well, as the very reason that grandparents are so involved is because the parents themselves have to work a lot and can therefore not be as present themselves. I also have extremely fond memories of my own grandparents and it is undeniable they played a large role in making me who I am. I find myself remembering things about my grandmothers on an almost daily basis, which both adds to my missing them but also soothes the ache of it.

In Grandmothers Vickers introduces us to three different "grandmothers". While only two of them are technically related to the children they care for, each of them is infused with the stubborn love and dedication that I remember from my own grandmothers. The strongest personality of the three is Nan, a secret poet with a tragic past who is perhaps unconventional in the lessons she teaches her grandson. Blanche is losing her way when the novel first starts, but as she retraces part of her history she connects more fully with herself once again. Finally, there's Minna, who provides a safe haven for her surrogate granddaughter and consistently tries her very hardest. Grandmothers is a beautiful insight into the life of women we don't often hear about. At times Grandmothers does veer into the unbelievable. The grandmothers don't know each other at the beginning of the novel, yet become connected through the oddest of circumstances. It gives the novel an almost fairy tale-like feeling which disconnects it slightly from reality. There is also a sense of, perhaps, entitlement to Vickers' grandmothers that I can imagine will rankle parental readers.

Grandmothers is very readable, largely because Vickers' writing is very uncomplicated. Although the feelings she discusses run deep, her protagonists are children and the elderly, which seems to have led her to a rather calm and simple reading style. There are some very imaginative moments in this novel which were beautifully described and were definite highlights for me. I read Grandmothers in a single day, settled down with a cup of tea and stormy weather outside and it made the perfect, cozy read. It is easy to agree with the grandmothers' sentiment that they are undervalued, even if upon a second look some fo their behavior is rather questionable. Nan, Blanche and Minna aren't always likeable or right and although this adds some depth to the story, it isn't enough to make it a novel whose ideas linger on after the last page.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

Vickers' story kept me hooked, even if I didn't feel entirely engaged by it. Part of the novel's attraction is a sense of nostalgia, as many of us have grandparents we fondly remember. Grandmothers, however, did leave me wondering as to what it's message was.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Friday Friyay: Susannah Cahalan's 'The Great Pretender'

I didn't manage to actually hop around much at all last week, which is a shame, but I promise to do better this week.

Let's get started with Book Beginnings at Rose City Reader, hosted by Gilion Dumas, and Friday 56 at Freda's Voice, hosted by Freda. This week I'm featuring the amazing The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan. My review for it went up earlier, it's an amazing deep dive into psychiatry and very well written. 

From "one of America's most courageous young journalists" (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.
For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people -- sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society -- went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry's labels. Forced to remain inside until they'd "proven" themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan's watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.
But, as Cahalan's explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?
I decided to skip the preface and share the beginning of Chapter 1, 'Mirror Image'. 



BB:
'Psychiatry, as a distinct branch of medicine, has come far in its short life span. The field has rejected the shameful practices of the recent past - the lobotomies, forced sterilizations, human warehousing. Today psychiatrists boast a varied arsenal of effective drugs and have largely dropped the unscientific trappings of psychoanalytic psychobabble, the "schizophrenogenic" or "refrigerator" mother of yesteryear who had been blamed for triggering insanity in their offspring. Two decades into the twenty-firs century, psychiatry now recognizes that serious mental illnesses are legitimate brain disorders.' 1%
I know that's quite a lot, but I wanted to share the whole paragraph with you as it kind of sums up a lot of what The Great Pretender discusses, namely how psychiatry has changed, just what was done before, and how the change came about. What this opening doesn't quite show is just how readable Cahalan's writing is.

F56:
'When the promises of community care - first championed by JFK - never materialized, thousands of people were turned out from hospitals (where some had spent most of their lives) and had nowhere to go. When Rosenhan conducted his study, 5 percent of people in jail fit the criteria for serious mental illness - now it's 20 percent, or even higher.' 56%

Again, not the most cheerful quote but then this isn't an exactly cheerful topic. Realizing how bad the situation is for many is one of the hard truths of the book, but there is also a lot of hope and faith. 

And finally there is the gem that is Book Blogger Hop, hosted over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer.

           
Book Blogger Hop
Do you think that overall work morale would be improved by having a "Book lunch", sponsored by the company at least once a month, or perhaps once a week? (Participation would be voluntary) - Maria @ A Night's Dream of Books

This is such an awesome question! The Women's Society at my company started a Book club about a year ago, which I know isn't quite the same thing as a book lunch, but I still love it. It's not a big group, but we meet once a month and it's lovely connecting with other people at work over something I enjoy so much. (One and the other women in the group and I have actually split off into a second little group called 'Book Snobs' where we discuss books and articles we've read on a more frequent basis.) It has definitely added to my relationship with some of my coworkers, especially when I got my whole team hooked on one of the books we read.

I think it could definitely add as long as it is voluntary and there is no unspoken pressure either. We have a lot of other "social" things at our company like lunches etc. and they can be really fun but can also feel forced.

Review: 'The Great Pretender' by Susannah Cahalan

According to NAMI, 1 in 25 American adults experience serious mental illness each year. That's an enormous number and it's even more shocking when you consider the state of mental health treatment. I haven't done a lot of reading around this topic as it makes me sad, but I found that The Great Pretender was a great starter. I also once again owe thanks to LitHub for a great excerpt from and article about this book which brought it to my attention.
Thanks to Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/5/29019
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

From "one of America's most courageous young journalists" (NPR) comes a propulsive narrative history investigating the 50-year-old mystery behind a dramatic experiment that changed the course of modern medicine.
For centuries, doctors have struggled to define mental illness-how do you diagnose it, how do you treat it, how do you even know what it is? In search of an answer, in the 1970s a Stanford psychologist named David Rosenhan and seven other people -- sane, normal, well-adjusted members of society -- went undercover into asylums around America to test the legitimacy of psychiatry's labels. Forced to remain inside until they'd "proven" themselves sane, all eight emerged with alarming diagnoses and even more troubling stories of their treatment. Rosenhan's watershed study broke open the field of psychiatry, closing down institutions and changing mental health diagnosis forever.
But, as Cahalan's explosive new research shows, very little in this saga is exactly as it seems. What really happened behind those closed asylum doors, and what does it mean for our understanding of mental illness today?
Over the past few years the conversation around mental health has changed drastically. Amongst my friends and peers, seeing a therapist is no longer something you need to hide or be ashamed off. Suffering from anxiety or depression is not just accepted, it is something friends will try to support you in as well. However, there is still a very long way to go when it comes to enough support and treatment being available. It means people are suffering with no recourse, especially in countries where healthcare doesn't receive enough funding. Books such as The Great Pretender, which dig into the history of psychiatry, the different forms it has taken and the studies that have shaken it up, is a great start to educate more people, while also sharing the deeply personal stories of those suffering from mental health stories.

Cahalan prefaces this book with her own story of hospitalization for encephalitis (She wrote her first book, Brain on Fire, about her experiences) and how the drastically the treatment she received changed once her diagnosis became physical rather than mental. She begins her research into why mental health issues are treated so differently from other physical ailments by looking into asylums and those, like Nellie Bly, who tried to expose them for their treatment in the 19th century. From there she discovers Rosenhan's study 'On Being Sane in Insane Places', a study that shook psychiatry and contirbuted to American institutions being closed and psychiatric diagnosis becoming more rigid and impersonal. As she digs in deeper and deeper, Cahalan frequently makes segues to explain more of the history of psychiatry in the USA. The story of Rosemary Kennedy absolutely broke my heart and the knowledge that what happened to her happened to countless of other people against their will is chilling. It is what makes the end of The Great Pretender very important. Towards the end, as she uncovers more and more oddities about Rosehan's study, Cahalan addresses both the revolutionary discoveries being made and the skepticism towards scientific studies that has grown more prevalent. She doesn't take the easy road and solely blame scientists, not at the end or at any point in the book. Rather, Cahalan uses her own experience and that of others to show how necessary medicine and good care is, while not shying away to show the darker spots where greed and complacency have wrecked lives. The Great Pretender is a read that packs a punch and that has had me thinking for a while now.

Susannah Cahalan is a great writer and her experience in journalism shines through in The Great Pretender. She ties all her research, her data and her conversations into a personal odyssey to find out everything she can about the study that had an enormous impact on her as well as the field of psychiatry. Cahalan manages to make this journey exciting, frustrating, eye-opening and truly emotional, which means that the 400-odd pages of The Great Pretender flew by for me. It's meticulously researched but written almost like a thriller novel. Cahalan's own frustration and pain is very clear, but so is her hope and trust in the improvement of the industry. I will definitely be reading Brain on Fire next and keep an eye out for furthering writing by Cahalan.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

The Great Pretender was a great read and one that has resulted in a big list of further reading. Cahalan's writing is engaging and her research detailed. I'd recommend this to anyone with an interest in psychiatry or looking for a good non-fiction read.