Last night I got bored and decided to make a batch of henna.Â I’ve experimented with a lot of different recipes, none of which have worked very well.Â I think what I decided is that A. putting lemon and sugar on it after it starts to dry really does help, and B. adding a decent …
This is a good book for any fans of neurology studies who has read about case studies of people with really odd brains and wondered what the people themselves were really like. From the woman who gets lost in her own home to the man who believed that he was dead, these people are really unusual. Some are even unique.
I heard about this book from a friend who told me about the woman who gets lost in her own home. Since I was born with a below-average sense of direction, I was hoping that by using her coping strategies I could become a better navigator. Some of them won’t work for me, but others I was already doing. Thomson also talks to memory experts, synesthetes, and people with various delusions about what it’s like to live with their disorder or ability.
Thomson is a pretty good interviewer, and I enjoyed the narrator (I got this as an audiobook). I had hoped to have more of a takeaway, like, how can I use this information in my own life, but that’s not really what this book is about. It just kind of skims the surface of each of these unusual brains, describing them and what their doctors know about the underlying brain structure that causes it, but not getting in to deep to therapeutic suggestions.
I recommend this book for people who like to read about neurology and psychology, but who aren’t actually neurologists or psychologists. Think of it as a series of descriptive articles/interviews collated around the theme of “people with unusual brains.”
I first heard about this author at convention, where someone assumed that two urban fantasy authors from Tempe, Arizona must surely know each other. I’ve never met the author, but became curious about his books and picked this one up when I saw it on sale, not realizing that it was the third in a series until I was a few pages into it. The author does enough backstory that I was able to follow along mostly, while realizing that there was a lot of stuff that happened before this book. (Probably it would have been better to start with the first one.)
The protagonist is a several-hundred-year-old Irishman named Atticus (not his original name) who is the last of the druids after most were killed by the Romans way back when Rome was conquering Britain. He’s got a sword that can kill with the smallest cut, amulets that let him heal himself fast, and the ability to do all sorts of things, such as shapeshift into different animals and teleport from one side of the world to another as long as he finds a place sufficiently wild. He’s got an apprentice, a bookstore filled with rare and wonderful things, and a sentient wolfhound with whom he can communicate psychically. He’s manly and tough; he drinks beer with gods. He’s a fanboy’s dream. I’ll get into that part later.
The story begins when our hero is sneaking into Asgard (or maybe it’s a different Norse supernatural realm, I get them confused) to steal a golden apple to fulfill a quest he got from what I can assume was a previous novel. Like some trickster god, he lies and bluffs when he can, flees when people wise up to him, and kills when running away fails him. All the while he cracks wise and makes pop culture references that hardcore fantasy fans will easily pick up on, such as references to old Monty Python movies. Some of it I liked, such as the scene where he meets Jesus. Some of it I disliked, such as the sentient dog who talks psychically. Sentient psychic companion animals were cool when McCaffrey and Lackey were doing them back in the 80’s, but it’s a trope worn very thin.
After killing a few mythological creatures, Atticus barely escapes, with all of Valhalla close on his heels, but has to turn right around and go back again because he’s promised his buddies, an alpha werewolf and the master vampire of Arizona, that he will help them kill Thor. They pick up a few other companions, a Finnish folk hero/old god, a Russian thunder god and a supernaturally awesome martial artist. The companions drink together and share tales of their own personal grievances with Thor. This was my favorite part of the book. Hearne seems to know tons about folklore and mythology and if he got the details wrong I don’t care because the stories were good.
Eventually they make it back to Asgard and get the help of some frost giants to kick ass. It’s all action scene and violence and setbacks and victory, like reading a description of an awesome superhero movie that hasn’t come out yet. This is the best thing about the novel, that the action scenes were tight and exciting. The book ends on a cliffhanger, with a new mortal danger for the protagonist and the reader left not knowing if one of the main allies is alive or not. I hate cliffhangers, feeling that they are cheap and unethical, but they work. I could picture most readers immediately going to Amazon to order the next in the series, just to find out what happens next.
Those are the good things about the book. The bad thing about the book is how often Atticus dropped character. Some times I could squint and try to picture an ancient Irish druid kicking ass, but more often than not I felt like I was reading about the author. Example: Atticus says that he “squeed” when he met Neil Gaiman. It’s understandable that a middle-aged, well-educated, white, middle-class urban fantasy author from Tempe, Arizona would do that (I did! OMG! Neil Gaiman!) Do I think Atticus would do that? Not a chance. The guy literally does shots with Jesus and is totally blase about it. Gaiman is a rockstar among fantasy authors, but he’s not bigger than Jesus. Another example: Atticus says the fish and chips at Rula Bula on Mill avenue are the best he’s ever had anywhere. Do I think that Hearne believes that the fish and chips at Rula Bula are the best he’s ever had? Sure. I’ve eaten there. The food is pretty good. Do I think that an Irishman, born on an ISLAND, who has lived all over the world, would grant “best” title to a kitschy pseudo-Irish bar 400 miles from the ocean? Not a chance. Honestly, it’s not even the best fried fish in Tempe (Rubio’s Baja Grill, if you’re asking.)
Some of the characters, Lief, for example, felt like they’d had flaws put in place just to make the protagonist more relatable. If Lief is tech-savvy enough to shut down the power at a Diamondbacks game, he surely knows how to Google and find out why baseball players are called “ball players” and not “athletes.” The scene when Lief and Atticus are trading Shakespeare quotes was fun, but it seemed like Hearne just showing off his literary chops. It would have felt more in character if it had been something just the two of them shared, like, I dunno, some ancient poetry from back in the day.
This is a book written by a fan, for fans. The character development was nonexistent. No one changes or even seems affected by events. They are all manly dudes who act like men, complete with aggression, an aversion to vulnerability, and the chronic undercurrent of homophobia. They have special powers, and some of them have accents, but like most superheroes, they have to dress differently so you can tell them apart. Maybe if I had read the first two novels, I might have been invested enough in Atticus and his friends to care about their triumph or failure, but since I started with this one, I saw it merely as a fun romp with cardboard characters, like an action movie but deeply nerdy. It’s a vehicle for (mostly male) readers to fantasize about being powerful and extra-cool. If you have a Gryffindor banner on your wall, bought your wife a copy of the “one ring” as an anniversary gift, and will tell random strangers with pride about your 1/16th Irish heritage as you show off your Celtic knotwork tattoo, this is your book.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that the author did not use quotations to set off dialog. It made it feel to me as if the novel was silent, underwater, like watching a movie with the sound off. There is dialog, but it’s not in quotes, so my mind’s voice doesn’t say it out loud, just recognizes it as what was said. At first it annoyed me, but as the novel went along, it made me feel as though I were living among people who almost never spoke. By the time I was ensconced in the story, I felt like I were living with them, an almost animal existence, living without talking, just doing and working and moving to survive.
The novel is very much one of location. The orchards are almost one of the characters in the novel. Talmadge, the protagonist, spends a lot of time caring for his trees. The constant mention of apples and apricots made me feel the beauty of the place even when the events turned tragic. There’s a great scene where Talmadge takes a train from another town and marvels that he could be home in the morning and so far away in the evening. I’ve felt like that too sometimes.
The story is a tragedy. When Talmadge’s father dies, his mother takes her two young children out to the middle of Oregon, where they live alone. His mother dies and his sister disappears, a grief that haunts him the rest of his days. He seems to be haunted by loneliness. Even when he has Angeline, he’s still mostly alone, worried and pining for the ones who left instead of hewing to the connections he still has. It never seems to occur to any of the characters that they could date or get married or do anything else to cure rather than merely to live with their loneliness and sorrow. Michaelson’s crimes are like a bad seed that spreads to infect people he’s never even met. His ill treatment of the girls lead to Jane’s tragedy and Della’s grief which leads to Talmadge’s grief which damages Angeline and even Clee and Caroline.
What I liked about the story was how the characters developed layer on layer until they felt real. What I didn’t like was watching them destroy themselves through their character flaws. This is the kind of book you read when you want to read something different, to experience a different life. It was well-written, but I can’t say it was a lot of fun.
If you like female-centric thrillers, where it’s all about the mystery and the tension and the veiled danger, this is a great example of the genre. It has an unreliable narrator who isn’t a very good person, more than one twist in the plot, and sufficient danger.
Anna Fox is living alone in a big five-story townhouse in New York, missing her daughter and her husband, from whom she separated nearly a year before the story starts. Anna is on a lot of medications, has physical and psychological therapy, and drinks Merlot faster than most people go through bottled water. She’s a voyeur who enjoys spying on the neighbors with her telephoto lens (and sometimes taking pictures of them.) She plays chess on line, takes French lessons online, and sometimes interacts with other people, trying to help them, even though she’s not really a psychotherapist anymore. What she doesn’t do is go outside.
Some new neighbors move in the house across the way, and pretty soon Anna’s small world is cracked open a little bit by Ethan, the shy but sweet teenager, and Jane Russell, his friendly warm-hearted mother. Readers may be tempted to think this is a redemptive arc, where the delightful Jane pulls Anna out of her shell and convinces her that the world is beautiful again, like some manic pixie fairy girl. But nope. Pretty soon Anna witnesses a murder and we find out that women who are on truckloads of psychoactive drugs (including cases of Merlot) are not considered credible witnesses. To make matters worse, there’s another women whom Anna has never seen before who is claiming to be Jane Russell.
I liked the explanation of Anna’s dissolution with her husband Ed; I found it a heart wrenching tragedy but still a compelling story. I also kind of liked Anna’s tangential relationships with the other people around her little park. Her relationship with her tenant, David, was also plausible, and I found him a very believable character.
What I didn’t really like is the part after the real killer is revealed. Actually, I didn’t really like any of the killer’s family. Their reactions didn’t really feel authentic. I think that I felt kind of cheated or lied to when the killer was revealed; there should have been more foreshadowing so that I went “OMG, of course! All the signs were there all along!” instead of “wait, what? I guess the killer is just a psychopathic liar … but …” It still left me disappointed. There was no way the reader could really have anticipated it, from Anna’s descriptions of the killer’s character, and the fact that Anna was so completely misled made her seem a little bit stupid.
Still, it made a plane flight go by a lot quicker than if I hadn’t had a book, and I found it a fun read. A little dark, though; be aware if you want something fluffy this isn’t it.
Best Staged Plans by Claire Cook
I wanted to like this book more. I’m not dissimilar from the protagonist demographically. Like me, Sandy is pretty much post-kids, eager to downsize and move on to the unfettered child-free part of her life. I too have dealt with the monumental task of getting a big family home full of memories (and stuff!) ready for strangers to view. I understand the resentment from feeling as though I’m herding cats to get other people to work towards a supposedly common goal. I can also get pretty excited about decorating and paint colors.
The good thing about the book is that there’s enough plot and subplots that I wanted to find out how it ended. Was Josh cheating on Denise? What happened to her favorite pair of reading glasses? Why wasn’t Greg picking up the phone? It’s low stakes, but it’s a lighthearted book and low stakes were enough. I also liked some of the descriptions of the memories of their family life. The protagonist’s constant arguments with the GPS weren’t funny, but I give the author credit for trying.
The bad thing is that I absolutely hated the main character. I found her whiny and self-absorbed and incredibly shallow. She bragged about how amazing her daughter was yet didn’t seem to care about taking an interest in her daughter’s life, not bothering to understand the daughter’s career. At one point she’s talking about how her daughter gave Sandy a good bed in the guest room, but instead of gratitude it came off as “well, I’m glad you measure up to my high standards.” Having Sandy help the the homeless woman redeemed her somewhat at the end, but by the middle of the book I just got so sick of the way she didn’t seem to appreciate her affluence and good fortune. She claims that no one cares about her, yet she doesn’t seem to notice that her husband isn’t as excited about moving as she is. She claims no one recognizes her work, yet she doesn’t seem to notice when other people are also working hard.
There was also this weird feminist/anti-feminist shame thing surrounding cooking and homemaking. She loses her shit when she sees her daughter wearing an apron and cooking a stew from scratch, and yet she has numerous tricks to pretend that she has made something from scratch when she hasn’t. Her daughter pleads to “not let Chance eat take out every day” so the protagonist makes a trip to Trader Joe’s to get stuff to “assemble.” Because she’s good at “assembling” things to make them look homemade. Make up your mind, lady. Is cooking from scratch a valuable skill or not? Cook or don’t cook, but don’t wring your hands about it. Cooking can not be simultaneously a rejection of feminine rights and a fundamental female value. As a person who feels firmly feminist and yet makes every meal from whole ingredients, I found the anti-cooking thing off-putting.
This book had a fluffy romance vibe, even though the protagonist is not involved in a romance, because the men are cardboard paragons who remain calmly bemused when the women around them spin off axis. She stops talking to her husband for three days because he doesn’t paint the cabinet fronts to her liking, and yet when he doesn’t call her back, she’s horrified. She flips out when she has to live in the house with her son-in-law alone, and seems utterly incapable of making polite conversation with her host. Surely being good company is a basic skill that adult women should have acquired at some point? Josh, her employer (who is also dating her best friend) is also kind of blandly blase about everything, even when Sandy gets in his face about a woman he may or may not be seeing. I get that Sandy was unhappy, but surely you should be a bit more professional with your boss? I enjoyed that the women were fully-fleshed out characters, but they were mostly unlikeable, and they were mostly built up because of the comparison to the two-dimensional nature of the men. Gossiping, shopping, getting pedicures and engaging in petty vandalism are not the behaviors I aspire to. The fact that she didn’t even consider returning the glasses she stole made me tsk in disapproval.
I liked the renovation discussions, to a point. I disagreed with some of her choices. I would call a hotel “Chocolate” which makes me think of luxury and indulgence, not “hot chocolate” which makes me think of disgusting packets of artificially-sweetened powder with desiccated marshmallows in them. I don’t think that painting walls brown is edgy. There is no universe so conservative that painting walls brown is edgy. I got pretty tired of the endless product placement. It wasn’t “we stopped to get coffee and a sandwich” it was “I picked up a Grande Vanilla Latte and a bacon and gouda ciabatta roll from Starbucks.” It wasn’t “I picked out a lovely warm brown” it was “I chose Behr’s ‘Iced Cappuccino’ in a sateen finish.” The trip to Trader Joe’s read like an excerpt from their Fearless Flyer. All the endless product placements and unnecessary details about the things she purchased and what she ate just reinforced my feeling that Sandy was a totally shallow and materialistic woman whose only identity came from mindless consumerism. I felt like I am ten to fifteen years more mature than her, and I don’t yet need reading glasses.
I would like to read more books like this–fluffy and fun books about women in their fifties with simple characters and plenty of plot–but some of the writing choices and the unlikable main character hampered my enjoyment.