Book Thirty Four

Book Thirty Four 2014: 

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

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This isn’t the first time I’ve read the always fascinating Dr. Oliver Sacks. I, like many others, started reading him after the movie Awakenings and in the intervening years I’ve made my way through Awakenings itself, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, The Mind’s Eye and now Hallucinations.

It does exactly what it says on the tin and deals with the nature of how and why the human brain hallucinates, talks about why it’s mostly not in people with mental illness but how it happens to so many people and just generally dissects it in a way I hadn’t thought about before.

How much you like this will depend on your interest in the human brain and neurological conditions; mine is fairly infinite. His section on hallucinations in epilepsy is particularly right up my street, obviously.

He’s very much in my “I’d read anything by him” category.

Book Thirty Two

Book Thirty Two 2014: 

Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer

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I grabbed this straight after the lovely Maria Doyle Kennedy’s reading of the first part in Hodges Figgis on European Literature Night last week.

The setup is simple enough – a woman is trying to cancel a subscription by e-mail to a magazine. She mails an address that is one letter out and starts a long running correspondence with the man she accidentally befriends and then becomes something more to…

As with so much I’ve read this year I think I might have never picked this up based in the cover but after having heard the first section I was sufficiently intrigued to hear more (you’d be surprised of the power of a great voice reading text from a novel can have on its ability to leap of the page).

It’s an elongated short story really, an epistolary fable for the 21st century and a warm, interesting, slight diversion that I finished in a day. If you need a little off time from the heavy stuff I’d recommend this.

Only thing that sits strangely with me is that a sequel is due. I thought it ended perfectly…

Book Thirty One

Book Thirty One 2014: 

Questions Of Travel by Michelle de Kretser

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So this is book number three after Donal Ryan and Marie NDiaye from this year’s Impac Prize list and all three have been top notch just to differing degrees.

This is based around two very simple but different people, one, middle class and from Australia who ends up in London and working as a travel writer before ending up back in Australia again, the other poor and from Sri Lanka who loops from there to Australia for very different reasons.

Persist with this one. After about 80 pages I was willing to give up, the thing that kept me on board was her sometimes breathtaking language and imagery. As with so many books I seem to stumble across, after 100 pages or so something clicks in my head and her jigsaw started to take shape.

It’s strong in character, internal monologue and well drawn location and incredible in places in language (I actually felt like I’d been to Sri Lanka, Sydney and Naples after I’d read it) but it’s a little long and a touch stretched out towards the end.

Not the best book from the IMPAC list this year but well, well above average and well worth the read.

Book Thirty

Book Thirty 2014: 

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

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I’m not reviewing this book.

You need to go out now and buy it, simple as.

The man is a genius of non-fiction observation and I have rarely laughed as much or as hard reading anything. The only thing better than reading him is listening to him reading it live as I did at the National Concert Hall recently.

No, seriously, go out and get a copy. now.

Book Twenty Nine

Book Twenty Nine 2014: 

 The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North

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Harry August is on his deathbed.  a little girl appears at his bedside. It’s the end of his 11th life. A small girl approaches him. ‘I nearly missed you, Doctor August,’ she says. ‘I need to send a message.’

See, you’re either one of two people. That has immediately hooked you and you want to read on (in which case move to the next paragraph), or you think that’s nonsense, in which case go away, I don’t like you.

I will, as is my wont, reveal little about the plot of The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August shy to say that it involves a tiny subgroup of humanity who find that when they die first time around, they arrive back at their birth again but with all the memories of their first time around. And their second. And their tenth…

Imagine the limitless possibilities, and the boredom, and the possibility to ruin the future of the human race… which is what happens during one of Harry’s lives.

You might already know Claire North as either Catherine Webb or Kate Griffin, maybe not. As for this first novel under her third pseudonym (as if jealousy doesn’t ooze from my every pore towards someone who has been successful under 2 different names already!) it’s well worth your time.

It rattles along and the concept is both bloody simple and ingeniously complex at the same time. It’s part Back To The Future, part Dr. Who but, as it’s set from the 1910s to the end of the 20th century, mostly historical “What If?” thriller. You do need a smidge of quantum physics and it has some lovely musings on the nature of the finite nature of human life to but that’s always a good thing in my book.

My only real regret here is that she didn’t write us a little more, but that’s a good thing, right?

Maybe next life.

Book Twenty Eight

Book Twenty Eight 2014: 

 Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye

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This is the second book I’ve read from this year’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award list after Donal Ryan’s incredible The Spinning Heart, and I’ll be honest, I picked it from the list because I’d just been through 2 huge 600+ page monsters. More honesty; I read the description on the back page and was pretty sure I’d be bored senseless, lash through it and that would be that.

You can probably tell from my tone already that’s not what happened…

Three Strong Women is a slightly misleading title as the book takes you through the lives of, primarily, a lawyer returning from France to Africa after a request for help from her estranged father, a kitchen salesman who appears to be undergoing some sort of internal nervous breakdown and a woman’s trek to escape to Europe after her husband dies.

All three are absolutely compelling their own way. The first in its dissection of family, the second with an internal narration of someone quite obviously losing his grip on reality and the third showing the genuine, harrowing reality of life for those on the margins trying to escape to a better life.

She writes beautifully too. Quite idiosyncratically to begin with (at one stage I counted 17 commas in a single, huge sentence!) but once you get past that she’s fluid and poetic and dirt-under-the-fingernails real all at the same time.

I have every intention of reading all of the IMPAC books before the winner is announced, if I read a better one than this I’ll be very, very pleased.

Book Twenty Seven

Book Twenty Seven 2014: 

 The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker

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This one comes much trumpeted as a book that’s already been a huge European hit prior to this English translation. Warner Bros have just bought the movie rights. All I read are sparkling reviews about how it’s the best thing since the last best thing and the future of thrillers.

So why didn’t it work for me?

Don’t get me wrong, for most of its 600-odd pages it’s a well drawn, atmospheric page turner about a blocked author desperate to write a second book after a sensational first one. He turns, as a last resort, to his mentor and college professor, the great Harry Quebert; a man who himself became a publishing sensation in the 70s after moving to a tiny New Hampshire town where he now lives.

It gives away nothing of the book (as it happens so early on) to say that the body is found of a girl who went missing in 1975 and Harry is the prime suspect…

I have 2 enormous grumps, I suppose – one is that the many, many, MANY twists in the last third are, for me, incredibly convoluted, unbelievable and far too drawn out. It makes a potentially tight, believable 500 page book a flabby 600+ one.

Maybe it’s because we’re all experts after watching years of procedural cop dramas but there are a couple of holes in here so big I could drive a bus through. Holes that belong somewhere beneath a poor episode of Elementary and just about above one of the better episodes of Criminal Minds.

I was actually yelling at the book for them to do something blindingly obvious. Eventually they do and the case cracks…

My other gripe is the dialogue that, in places, reads like a bad episode of Fair City. Don’t believe me? Find some. Read it. Try not to laugh. I would say it could be a poor translation but Sam Taylor is responsible. He also did Laurent Binet’s fantastic HhHH, so that’s probably not it.

That’s not to say the whole book is terrible, far from it, but the problems above poke such huge holes in the boat that, for me, by the end it had sunk without trace.

The book at one point says the following…

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My problem is that half a second after finishing this I was overwhelmed by a particular feeling.

Disappointment.

Book Twenty Six

Book Twenty Six 2014: 

 The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

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I am immediately aware as I type this that Haruki Murakami is one of *those* authors that split people straight down the middle. You will either be immediately taken away by his characters, world, writing or you’ll think he’s a cryptic nonsense-merchant of the highest order and throw his books away in frustration.

Be aware I am in the former group.

Being honest I’ve come late to him, the first thing of his I read was the epic trilogy 1Q84 last year but I fully intend to make up for time.

This book is *beautiful*. Hypnotic. Elegant. Entrancing. The sort of thing I would willingly press into the hands of anyone who loves books.

As I do frequently I’m not going to tell you anything about the plot, I always much prefer to find out important things like that by actually reading the book. Suffice to say that it’s set in Tokyo in the 80s and involves a similar mix to 1Q84 of solitary living, intertwining stories and a world that is at the same time very, very concrete and entirely not like the world we live in bordering on fantasy or SF…

I was talking about it on Twitter afterwards and more than one person said they had read it years ago and it had “haunted” them.

You should read it. I was hypnotised. He writes unlike anyone else.

Book Twenty Five

Book Twenty Five 2014: 

 The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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As I’ve said here before I love books that tilt the world slightly on its axis and cause me to look at things differently; this one is no exception.

Ostensibly a book about events that occur entirely outside of the range of what one would normally expect to happen (9/11, financial crashes, tsunamis, the fate of Lebanon in the 80s, Facebook) it also ranges widely across vast territory how the financial system works (he used to work on Wall Street) to the very art of predicting anything in *any* field of life and why doing that is usually a complete waste of time.

He goes to huge lengths to say that he makes no predictions about anything himself (he sees attempts to do that in all but the most tightly scientific fields utter nonsense) but that he wrote this book in 2007 and makes no small suggestion that the banking system is build on sand and is liable to be swallowed up at any moment does no harm to the rest of his theories. There’s a fair amount of overlap in places with the wonderful Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman as well, another book that is nothing short of brilliant if you’ve never stumbled across it.

If I have one small criticism it’s that there are sections of the book that are almost impenetrable and that I lightly skimmed over. I’m no genius, but I’ve read this sort of stuff all my life and am fascinated by pretty much everything, but parts of this are not for the man in the street like me…

Having said that, it’s head-opening in places, wide-ranging and will make you look at the world differently. Highly recommended.

Book Twenty Four

Book Twenty Four 2014: 

 The Three by Sarah Lotz

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Typical. You haven’t read anything great by a female author in ages and then four come along at once 🙂

The pitch for Sarah Lotz’s The Three is best left at one line – four planes crash across the world on the same day, there are only 3 survivors, all children…

The story is told in a fragmented style from inside the construct of a book that has been written about the events of what’s become known as Black Thursday soon after those events themselves.

You hear about what happened from people on the ground, people with the surviving children, people unconnected but with large, powerful interests that are driving events around the world the book is set in.

Honestly, telling a story like this means that Sarah Lotz has given herself a huge, uphill battle here. She pulls off all of the individual voices effortlessly while driving us along at speed even if once or twice I found myself wandering a bit as the vastly disparate strands were being slowly teased out.

It’s in the last 100 pages or so that The Three really flies and makes itself a must-read. Things all come together and wrap up, convincing you that it’s first one sort of story, then another, then another yet again. Was the survival of The Three a coincidence? A supernatural occurrence? The hand of God?

I pretty much always find myself being unsatisfied with endings of books. Not here. It finishes brilliantly.

It’s out on May 22nd, make a note and grab a copy.