meilufay’s #CBR5 review #12 Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

When we were choosing a YA book to read for Twitter book club #1book140, I lobbied hard for Little Brother. I’d loved Pirate Cinema, and really didn’t want to read a book about a kid with cancer. Because enough of us didn’t want to read The Fault in Our Stars, we formed an alternate book club to read Little Brother. By chance, I ended up reading The Fault in Our Stars, and I’ve written how deeply moving I found that experience to be yesterday. Poor Little Brother got a little lost in the emotional wake of The Fault in Our Stars.

Neil Gaiman has an awesome review of Little Brother that is definitely better than whatever I’m going to write here, if that interests you.

The title of Little Brother is one of many references in the book to George Orwell’s 1984. The book proposes an near-future that doesn’t look all that different from our present day. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have resulted in the government stepping up its surveillance of its citizens. Another attack on San Francisco sees Little Brother’s main character, teenager Marcus, swept up by Homeland Security as a possible terrorist. The book details how his response to these events radicalizes him, turning Marcus from a fun-loving kid into an activist. It doesn’t sound like it would be but it’s an extremely fun read, Marcus is smart and resourceful and his hacks are like the 21st century version of A-Team hacks, using simple tools to undermine the government’s surveillance strategies. As fun as this book is, it is also very upsetting because so much of what Doctorow is writing about is happening right now. We’d like to shake Marcus’ clueless parents and teachers but in so many ways we are every bit as clueless as some of the adults in this story.

I really enjoyed this book, and plan to read many more of Doctorow’s novels.

meilufay’s #CBR5 review #11 The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

This book did me in. It rearranged the furniture in my brain… While reading this book a penny dropped and I came to terms with living with CFS/ME in a way that I just had never done since becoming disabled five years ago. I’ve struggled to find a way to write a review about The Fault In Our Stars in a way that doesn’t make it boringly all about me because, honestly, this book was responsible for some serious, hard-core, life-changing alterations in the way I view myself, the world I’m living in and the disease I’m living with. I read the book 2-3 months ago and I have completely changed my life in response to the realizations I had while reading it.

The Fault in Our Stars is narrated by Hazel, a teenaged girl who has a terminal cancer. It sounds like a bummer, right? It sounded like such a depressing novel that I didn’t want to read it. I’d decided NOT to read it but then my library had it sitting on the shelf and #1book140 was reading it and I thought, “well, I’ll just read one chapter and stop if I don’t like it.” I am so glad I did. And not just for all the personal reasons I mentioned above. This book is AMAZING. It is smart and charming and silly. It is laugh out loud funny and tears rolling down your face heartbreaking. It is a work of wonder and beauty. It’s movingly and beautifully written, a delicate little perfectly formed and miraculous snowflake of a novel. I really really really loved it. It was awesome.

The most wonderful, incredible thing about this book is it really nails the Alice Through The Looking Glass feeling of what it’s like to be an ill person in a world that is completely designed for healthy people. The otherness of the experience, the sense that your existence no longer makes sense, that you’re a mistake, that you’re a failure, that you’re invalid, that you’re a burden. And yet, you don’t stop loving and people don’t stop loving you just because you can no longer function normally. I’m going to end this review with a quote with the book because I feel incapable of doing injustice to it. This is one of my favorites

“According to Maslow, I was stuck on the second level of the pyramid, unable to feel secure in my health and therefore unable to reach for love and respect and art and whatever else, which is, of course, utter horseshit: The urge to make art or contemplate philosophy does not go away when you are sick. Those urges just become transfigured by illness.”




(PS Not to be super-braggy but participating in the Twitter book club conversations about this book directly led to my being mentioned in the Wall Street Journal which was AWESOME for me, if not, you know, necessarily relevant for you. If you read the WSJ article, you will notice my comment about the book was not flattering. That’s because I wasn’t sure if I liked it in the beginning. John Green writes in a very stylized way and the dialogue between the main characters felt *very* precious to me at first.)

meilufay’s #CBR5 review #10 Frost Burned by Patricia Briggs

Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series is easily my favorite paranormal series. I have to say, this wasn’t my favorite book in the series by far and I did keep on picking it up and putting it down again (rather than read obsessively) but I’m by no means done with Mercy’s adventures. I think maybe Briggs is a little at a loss with her character now that she’s settled down and doesn’t *quite* know what to do with her next. Anyway, it’s not a great book, but I liked it.

meilufay’s #CBR5 review #9 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology by Scott O. Lillienfield et al

Hey guys, remember when my New Year’s resolution was to not get behind on my reviews?? That was *adorable*, wasn’t it?? I know, I know. It’s so *cute* how optimistic I am.

I read this book based on a review on the blog Science-Based Medicine.

I really enjoyed this book and definitely learned a thing or to while reading it. For instance: insanity is a legal, not a medical term.

For the last few years, I’ve been struggling with a disability (CFS/ME) and I often feel as if I’m drowning in medical misinformation. I really value books like this which clarify some of the myths that are unexaminedly perpetuated by the media. I really recommend it.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #8 The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken

I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately to complement the two selections we’re reading in twitter book club #1book140 (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow).  Jane Aiken has been mentioned as an influence in a lot of author interviews that I’ve read lately so I picked this book up from my library.

I have to say, this book is not at all what I was expecting it to be.  Because of the title, and the ominousness of the wolves in the first chapter, I was expecting book to be some form of supernatural story.  In fact, it’s really a classic Gothic storyline, the sort which implies the supernatural but ultimately has a reasonable explanation for everything.  That makes it sound as if I didn’t enjoy this book, but I really did.  Just because it’s a genre book, and thus adheres to certain generic traditions, doesn’t mean that it isn’t well-written or fun to read.

This book is almost like a cross between Jane Eyre and the Little Princess.  Cousins Bonnie and Sylvia are living in sprawling mansion Willoughby Chase under the charge of their governess, the villainous Miss Slighcarp.  Bonnie’s mother is very ill and her father has taken her to tropical climes in hopes of finding a cure for her illness.  As soon as the children (and the estate) are completely in Miss Slighcarp’s charge, misfortune reigns down on these two plucky heroines as Miss Slighcarp and her conspirators seek to take over the wealthy estate and dispossess the two girls.

One of the pleasures of this book was that I genuinely didn’t know how it was going to turn out (though I felt that the two main characters would triumph in the end, I really did not know exactly what their happy ending would look like).  Aiken’s descriptions are so evocative that I was completely sucked into the brooding yet innocent world of her story.  While the characters have some of the oversimplification that one particularly sees in vintage YA literature (a la Little Princess), in the context of this fairy tale-ish world, the lack of complexity didn’t really bother me.  Particularly given that the plot was much more suspenseful than is usual for vintage YA.   Good stuff.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #7 Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

It’s rare for a book to be this informative and this entertaining.  Ben Goldacre is a physician and academic who also happens to be a great and funny writer.  For years he wrote a column on medicine and science for the Guardian UK.  He’s currently a fellow of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Disease.  So when he writes about medicine and medical research, he’s coming from the point of view of someone who has trained as a doctor and is actively involved in the field of medical research.  How totally refreshing, right?  He’s not a bullshit literature PhD pretending to be a medical doctor, he’s not an actress, he’s not an MD who makes millions selling supplements.  He’s a guy who is very well-educated about a particular subject who makes every effort to clarify that subject for people who are not as well-educated in it.  I mean, I know.  It’s a totally revolutionary approach.  I’ll let that sink into your brain while I write about myself for a paragraph.

I have CFS/ME (chronic fatigue syndrome).  I’ve had it for five years this May.  When I say I’ve had it for five years this May, I mean that I’ve been completely disabled by CFS/ME for almost five years.  The truth is, I knew there was something wrong for years before that, and struggled to figure out what was wrong with me while juggling a full life until I collapsed completely and was unable to have anything even resembling a life.  (At least, not as most people would define one.  I won’t go into the tragic details.)  I’m not telling you this story to get your pity or whatever.  I’m telling you this in order to give you the background to understand that I have read a shit-ton of books about health.  I’ve been to every kind of medical specialist and alternative practitioner you can name.  I consider myself a reasonable, rational person but over the years I’ve tried a lot of things out of desperation.  I’ve *almost* done it all.  (I say almost because there were stones I left unturned.  For instance, I never voluntarily got a parasite.)  Because the alternative was to pretty much do nothing (there’s no meaningful treatment option for CFS/ME* other than the common sense plan of eating healthily, getting enough sleep and exercising – although obviously, this last activity is intensely problematic).  Trying, say, a new dietary plan for 3-6 months at a time was almost like a hobby, a thing I could do to feel as if I was actively working towards healing, a thing to do while I was also eating lots of vegetables (and, depending on the diet, some fruit), exercising as much as I possibly could and, you know, sleeping.  (Sleep is surprisingly problematic for CFS/ME patients.)  Each time I would start a new eating plan (for instance: vegan and paleo), I would usually read a very science-y seeming book on the topic (The China Study, Deep Nutrition) and I would ignore the part of my brain that would flag all the inconsistencies in the apparently scientific case put forward by the author of the book because I really wanted to believe that by cutting out meat or grains I would miraculously get better.  At some point, though, I got tired of the mental gymnastics.  I do, after all, have a disease which has fatigue right in its name.  It’s a lot of mental effort to believe in something and to hold on to that belief in the face of conflicting evidence. Over the years, I’ve often felt as though in order to deal with my illness, I need to get my own medical degree, learn statistics and learn how to read articles on PubMed.  If only there was some other way.  Some source of information that can provide me with context that my doctor is unwilling or unable to provide.  If only there were people who had medical degrees and backgrounds in analyzing medical research who would assess health reportage and write about it.  You know, people who don’t really have anything to sell (such as supplements).  People who know better than to cherry pick at research (which means to triumphantly pounce on anything that seems to support your theories and ignore anything which does not).  Well Ben Goldacre is one of those people.  I found him because I found this website, Science-Based Medicine (percent of SBM writers who have gone to medical school: 100%, percent of SBM writers who also sell/endorse supplements: 0%).

If you are looking for a book that will help help you develop your critical faculties in assessing science and health reporting, if you are looking for clear thinking and accessible prose, then Ben Goldacre is a wonderful place to start.  The fact that he manages to do all of the above while not taking himself too seriously and being witty is just the whipped cream and hot chocolate topping on this delicious yet miraculously healthy sundae of a popular science book.  (Wow, that metaphor got REALLY murky, didn’t it?)

*EDIT: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Graded Exercise Therapy are the treatment options which have received the most validation by research, however I live in rural Idaho and have not had access to either.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #6 Grimm Tales for Young and Old by Philip Pullman

This review is for the audiobook version of Grimm Tales for Young and Old written by Philip Pullman and narrated by Samuel West.

I have a history of insomnia and lately I’ve been doing this thing where I turn off the lights at bedtime and listen to an audiobook.  It’s very relaxing and if I don’t fall asleep “on time”, I don’t have as much anxiety about it.  (You know that whole insomniac game of, “if I fall asleep right now, I’ll get 7 hours of sleep…”)  Also, apparently it’s good sleep hygiene because it means the lights are out at about the same time every night.  (Whereas if I read a book until I get sleepy there’s a chance I’ll stay up late because I’ve got caught up in the story.)  It’s a very soothing practice, like having an adult reading a book aloud to you when you were a child.

Anyway, as you can imagine, I have a tendency to fall asleep mid-story.  So I’ve mostly been doing this with books I’ve read before (i.e. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Neverwhere) but when I saw that Philip Pullman, author of the amazing His Dark Materials series, had just released an anthology of rewritten Grimm fairy tales AND that it was narrated by Samuel West (who seriously has one of the most exquisite voices I have ever heard – if you love Tom Hiddleston, then perhaps it will mean something to you that in the early days of Hiddles, I thought of him as a young Sam West or as “Sam West adjacent”) I had to download this book.

This book was every bit as dark, delicious and fun as I’d anticipated.  It’s wittily written and beautifully narrated (Sam West can do an infinite number of voices and accents and he puts this talent to great use in breathing life into the various characters who show up in these tales).  The original fairy tales were a lot bloodier and stranger than the sanitized Disney versions we heard as children and it’s fun to revisit familiar territory only to discover that everything is not exactly as we remember it.  (For instance, Cinderella’s step-sisters cut bits of their feet off in order to fit in the shoes and are only discovered because they are bleeding.  Really, the Prince is remarkably dense.)

I really enjoyed both Pullman’s writing and West’s narration and highly recommend this audiobook.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #5 Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

If you’d have asked me two weeks ago which of Lewis Carroll’s two Alice novels was my favorite, I’d have answered Through the Looking-Glass.  For one thing, the idea of traveling through a mirror to an alternate universe that is the reverse of the one we’re in is GENIUS and one I was completely obsessed with as a kid.  Just way more captivating (to me) than the idea of falling down a rabbit hole (although Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole is every bit as amazing and delightful to read now as it was the first time around).  Also, I love the idea of the story being organized around Alice’s journey across a chessboard, a pawn hoping to end up as a queen.  Last, but not least, Through the Looking-Glass has Jabborwocky in it and I *love* that poem.

But now?  Now, I think now I’d say that Alice in Wonderland has a more satisfying plot, but …  Through the Looking-Glass is still an astonishingly inventive book.  I absolutely adore Lewis Carroll’s wordplay and nonsensical flights of fancy and both qualities are on sparkling display in this novel.  Are there more songs than I (or Alice) would like?  Yes.  Does it get a little repetitive towards the end?  Also yes?  Do I care?  Not really, no.  Through the Looking-Glass is deliriously enjoyable to read and I still love it.

Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 review #4 Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass were two of my favorite books when I was growing up.  I fell thoroughly and deeply in love with the books’ delicious nonsense and I can’t say I ever really got over it.  To this day there’s nothing that delights me quite so much as a story with imaginative, unrealistic elements.  Illogical impossibilities such as talking animals, spaceships, impossible travel, gods, monsters and conscious machinery?  Sign me up, I can’t get enough of it.

Recently I listened to the audiobook version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and I realized just how deliberately Neil Gaiman is following in the tradition set by Lewis Carroll.  His hero, Richard Mayhew, falls into an underworld version of London and his adventures there reflect the wordplay and delirious sense of fun of the original Alice books.  Gaiman consciously echoes the Carroll’s language, talking about how many impossible things Richard had believed before breakfast.  (I’m paraphrasing, I don’t have the book in front of me.)  Revisiting London Below inspired me to revisit Wonderland and I’m very very glad I did.  This is a marvelous book, justifiably celebrated as a classic, and I find it every bit as inspiring as an adult as I did as a child.


Mei-Lu’s #CBR5 Review #3 Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This review is for the audiobook version of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell narrated by Simon Prebble.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is an absolutely wonderful book, definitely in my top ten books for the first ten years of the 21st century.  It’s a masterfully written tale of an alternate history world in which magic exists.  It’s the story of two magicians, the only two English magicians in centuries, it’s the story of English magic, the classic story of the tragic consequences of deals with faeries set in the era of Napoleonic war, the era of Jane Austen. Susanna Clarke writes wittily and elegantly and with a delightful attention to detail.  The book is full of discursive anecdotes and footnotes which color in the history of the alternate Britain Clarke has imagined.  This is the perfect book for the person who as a child wanted to go through the looking glass to explore strange other worlds, grew up to love Jane Austen and now wants to have that same sense of transportation and wonder.  I can not recommend this book highly enough.

Wonderfully narrated by Simon Prebble (who was perfectly cast and gave wonderful voice and inflection to all the characters in the book), this audiobook may be one of the best I’ve ever listened to.  I listened to it before falling asleep at night and it truly made the perfect bedtime story for a grown up.  I was completely transported by Prebble’s soothing and drily witty storytelling style.  I highly recommend the audiobook version of this book.