Quick Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Book 2 for the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge
★★★½
  • I think I added this book after seeing it featured at Chapters.
  • This is an unusual memoir in that the person writing it doesn’t recall the bulk of the time she writes about. Susannah takes on the role of reporter into her own life. I can’t imagine how strange that must be. The slow struggle to return to her usual self, as she recognizes what she can no longer do, was also tough to witness.
  • Every now and then I come across a book about an intriguing medical condition, something fascinating and unusual that shows just how little we understand our bodies (or indeed how well we can understand them, given the variables).
    • I was astonished by how quickly Susannah’s problems were at first dismissed as being drinking related (72). It seems this is a side-effect of an overwhelmed health care system, with doctors being unable to give patients they time and attention they need.
    • Something else I was amazed by was the amount and cost of the blood infusions (erm, not sure if that’s the correct term…) she had done.
      Pg. 146 wow can’t blood cost and amount
  • The attitude toward mental disorders in this book made me very uncomfortable. Susannah, her parents and some of her doctors all seem to think something along the lines of “We don’t want her to be crazy, god forbid she needs psychiatric help, we want her to be normally, properly sick”. I understand that part of the concern comes from the fear of being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder instead of the real problem, but the way she discusses psychiatric diseases is like they’re a ‘lesser’ problem, like “Ew, icky, at least I’m really sick with my disease”. 
  • I chatted with my Mom about this book, which made me think of so many comments on reading books with family members, that I’m going to make a whole post about it later.

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Author: V.E. Schwab
Title: A Darker Shade of Magic
Format/Source: ebook/Amazon
Published: February 2015
Publisher: Tor
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Magical fantasy
Why I Read: Excited to keep reading after the sneak peak
Read If You’re: Fantasy/magic fan, of the Gaiman variety
Quote: “The wall gave way and the traveller and the thief stepped forward and through.” (49%)
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Whoop whoop. Now that it’s released and I’ve read the whole thing, I can build on my sneak peek comments. Did the story live up to my expectations? Mostly. Everything I loved about the sneak peek persisted throughout the book. But there’s one big thing that keeps me from giving this five stars (discussed after the spoiler warning).

Hm, but now that I’m writing this, there’s not much to add to my previous comments! I think the world-building aspect is covered by saying it lives up to the jacket description. I can add that you really get a sense of each London from the behaviour of its inhabitants. I love the eerie mob voice Schwab gives to the people of White London. My comment about characters is expanded below the spoiler warning. Regarding the prose – now that the final copy is available I can give a quote to demonstrate. This passage isn’t particularly shining but I noted it because I think it gives a strong of sense of Schwab’s style in this book.

Slowly, the man – or rather now, the thing inside him – lifted his head. His black eyes shone, slick against the dry dark as he surveyed the alley. Te body of the second cutthroat lay nearby, but he was already quite dead, the light snuffed out. Nothing to salvage. Nothing to burn. There wasn’t much life left in his own body, either – just enough flame to feed on – but it would do for now. (31%)

I can also add that I ship RhyLa (Are people calling them that? It’s not just me, right?). I made this note in the book before they even meet, on the line, “A procession was marching down the avenue” (52%). The pairing hadn’t crossed my mind until then, but the ship appeared before my eyes and I jumped on it. There might be a spark between them; they barely interact, but I’m intrigued to see if or how their relationship (romantic or not) develops.

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains significant spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

Here’s a first for me – I think this book has too many deaths. Why are they so many? Almost every character who is introduced dies. These are characters who have personality and seem like they’d make great players in the ongoing story. They were barely around long enough for me to care (only in the sense that I thought, “Dang, that guy would have been fun to read about!”). One of the deaths is clearly meant to have an emotional impact on Lila, but because the reader knows so little of her and her relationship with Barron (erm, was that his name…), I didn’t feel too sad about it. Because there are so many deaths,  I’ve started to wonder if there’ll be some sort of return from the dead plot in the next book… did anyone else think the death toll was abnormally high?

While the story clips along, it concludes with many unanswered questions, particularly about our heroes Kell and Lila. I enjoyed reading about them, but I’m still very curious about their backgrounds and motivations. I especially want to know where Lila’s pirate ambitions come from! The book feels like an introduction to whatever is going to come next. Usually I like stories that are set in a big world but remain small and contained. However, this book finishes feeling almost too contained. You can guess at where the next book will go, but the conflicts present in this book are largely resolved. There’s not yet a greater thread that one might expect to be present in the first book of a series. I’m left wondering all about the few characters who survive the book and what they’ll be getting up to next. Something else I’m curious about is the character(?) of magic, how he(?) came to be, if ‘he’ was always that way (I’m not sure the best way to refer to this ‘character’, as you can see…I guess magic technically is a character but I feel strange referring to it/him that way!). I wasn’t expecting that sort of personification. Not sure yet how I feel about it. I don’t mind having all these questions because I enjoyed reading the book and I know there will be another, but I would have liked some tidbits to tide me over.

Some bit notes on Rhy, Holland and the Danes: I was really really glad when it was revealed Rhy was possessed and not actually terrible. I did get stressed out when it seemed he might die, cos at that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if he did (maybe that was the purpose of all the deaths?). Of the deaths, Holland’s was most shocking for me (okay, maybe tied with the Dane’s – I certainly didn’t expect both of them to be gone already!). I like the antagonist Antari. Going back to the Dane’s deaths, it felt a little quick and too easy for me liking.

Please don’t think I didn’t enjoy this book! I recommend it. There was just more to say about the thing that I didn’t care for than all the aspects I loved (style, world-building, characterization).

The Bottom Line: I enjoyed this book particularly for the setting, the atmosphere and the portrayal of magic. I look forward to the next book, where I hope we’ll get to meet new characters and learn more about Kell and Lila.

Further Reading: 

Review: The Third Plate by Dan Barber


Author: Dan Barber
Title: The Third Plate
Format/Source: eBook/Library
Published: May 2014
Publisher: Penguin Press
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Interested in food; haven’t read a book like this in ages
Read If You’d: Like to learn about improving a food’s flavour or how eat more ‘naturally’
Quote: “The food chain is actually more like a set of Olympic rings. They all hang together.” (33)
Rating: ★★★½ [ratings guide]
Challenges: Foodies Read 2015
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

“But we weren’t addressing the larger problem. The larger problem, as I came to see it, is that farm-to-table allows, even celebrates, a cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow. Farm-to-table chefs may claim to base their cooking on whatever the farmer’s picked that day […], but whatever the farmer has picked that day is really about an expectation of what will be purchased that day. […] Farm-to-table may sound right – it’s direct and connected – but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around.” (26)

 If you’ve passed by this book thinking “Well, I’ve already read Pollan’s In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma” – as I initially did – think again! My apologies to Dan Barber. I noticed this book when it was released last spring but I didn’t rush to it because I thought it would rehash books I’d already read. When I added it to my Foodies Read 2015 list, I prepared for a repeat read, thinking I could use a refresher. Instead I found a new perspective that looks beyond what I already knew (Barber assumes you’ve read Pollan and that Barber’s taking the next step from there). As I made my way through the introduction, I got excited about what I was going to read. My note on the quote above was “AHA, that’s still the problem. Great, this is the next angle/step!” Barber sets out to look once again at the big picture, moving beyond how we can make single ingredients (like tomatoes or beef) more sustainable.

“The Third Plate goes beyond raising awareness about the importance of farmers and sustainable agriculture. It helps us recognize that what we eat is part of an integrated whole, a web of relationships, that cannot be reduced to single ingredients. It champions a whole class of integral, yet uncelebrated, crops and cuts of meats that is required to produce the most delicious food. Like all great cuisines, it is constantly in flux, evolving to reflect the best of what nature can offer.” (33)

The early part of the book involves much discussion of Barber’s restaurant and farm endeavour. Well, of course his restaurant plays a role throughout the story, but in the beginning I felt dropped in the middle of it. Barber writes as though you’re familiar with his business endeavour, or as if knowing the background isn’t important – but I think it is because I didn’t really understand how he ran the farm and how it would accommodate the techniques he learns about. I would have appreciated a few pages fleshing out the background of how he came to run Blue Hill and how the Stone Barns operation functions.

Barber breaks the book into four large sections – soil, land (focused on foie gras), sea (focused on fish) and see (focused on bread). The soil chapter focus on soil, because it’s so integral to growing anything. A good place for the book to start. I felt too much space was devoted to fish, but I really don’t like fish so I wasn’t totally captivated. At least I was able to feel a bit better that I don’t eat unsustainable fish! There wasn’t a lot of direct talk about vegetables, because I suppose they’re covered under growing things in the soil chapter. I was very happy to come to the bread chapter (especially after reading so much about icky fish). Bread is my soul food (sometimes life in Japan is very hard when I can’t get nice bread ;-;).  My exact note was, “Oooh bread now we’re talking” (370). Barber references a book about the chicken industry (168). I love chicken but while reading this book I realized – I don’t think I’ve ever had a really good chicken, only chicken from the supermarket. Now that I understand more about where flavour comes from, I think it’s my duty to try a well-raised chicken.

I learnt a lot about different methods of agriculture. One passage that struck me was about Klaas, a farmer who went looking for books about weed control before the use of manufactured chemicals. He finally found a book written in the 1930s that said “Vigorous plant stands are the best means for eradicating weeds”. Klaas says, “I read that to [my wife] Mar-Howell and we just looked at each other and said ‘Duh! Focus on the best plants! How come we didn’t think of that” (66). Of course, it seems so obvious once you say it. Around page 108, with all the talk about how plants grow and overcome adversities, I was hit with the thought that it’s amazing plants just work, they just grow and do what they need to, and they would keep on growing and nature would keep balancing itself out, even if no one knew about it. I think that’s pretty freaking amazing. I learnt a bit about the USDA’s historical influence on farming systems and how that was recently overcome by the private sector’s influence:

“By the 1990s, private industry had surpassed the USDA in the funding of agricultural research at land-grant institutions. And the spending gap continued to expand. In a little more than a century, the spirit of a regional food system encouraged by land-grant colleges was effectively turned on its head” (434).

I also learnt a lot about how flavour occurs naturally in foods. It’s something I realized I had no idea about, despite being someone who loves flavourful food (who doesn’t?). I always kind of thought great flavour could only come from using extra seasonings like herbs. I never thought much of food tasting great on its own – which really sums up the problems with the food industry that Barber tackles in this book. For example, one thing I learnt is that exercising animals (such as pigs) makes room in the muscles for fat deposits, which means better flavour (190). Hmmm, interesting! Some parts of the book could have been strengthened by more scientific evidence (although see my comment in the final paragraph about notes). One part that struck me early on was the discussion of how killing soil kills nutrients and thus flavour (sorry, missed the page number). Sounds logical but I’d like some concrete scientific explanation, please, because it’s all new to me.

Barber’s focus here is flavour and how that can be achieved through chefs pursuing sustainable agriculture. He’s not talking about large-scale feasibility of the systems he explores, which is okay, I suppose. It’s not the focus of this book, but it’s definitely an important question. The ideas he writes about sound great, but how can we widely implement them beyond the privleged world of a chef’s fancy restaurant? The forms which Barber explores are definitely not affordable for most people. The numbers are indirectly mentioned about 1/3 of the way into the book (165). He acknowledges not everyone has the money to buy great flavour, and flavour is the focus of his book – not health, ethics or environment (if those areas are benefited in Barber’s cases, it’s because they’re a side effect or means to great flavour). At another point (293), he asks how do we keep in check the drive for economic returns? However, I’m still left wondering who can afford this and how many can you feed with these systems? That’s my question, but it’s not the one Barber sets out to answer. That’s fair, but I think it’s a topic that shouldn’t be avoided and could have had a chapter devoted to acknowledging it.

Barber does touch on environmental benefits, as the way to grow flavourful food comes from growing it in an environmentally friendly manner. He also writes that such systems could be better adaptable in a world affected by climate change.

“In the face of weather that is less predictable and more unforgiving, a diversity of locally adapted crops is one way for farmers to hedge their bets. Glenn’s landrace system isn’t just repatriating a lost cuisine. It’s gathering the seed stock for the future of eating” (409).

Something this book has that I haven’t really noticed in other food books is a certain style of humour. There’s some light cussing, small jokes, and colourful personalities. My favourite bit:

“I went with yellow mustard”‘ Klaas said, and then he leaned his head back and smiled mischievously. My expression didn’t change, which I could tell confused him. Had I known about the improbability of planting yellow mustard, I would have said, “Holy shit, Klaas. You planted a weed in your already weed-infested field?!” That’s what his Penn Yan neighbors said. (79)

Okay, I’m almost finished! Here are some notes on the end of the book. When I reached the end, I exclaimed “OH epilogue?!” because I found on myself on page 465 of 579.  Just as I was thinking “I’d like some encompassing wrap up idea”, Barber presents a new menu (475). Okay, that’s fine, but as I discuss above – it doesn’t really offer the practical answers of implementation that I was hoping for. But by the time I got to the end, I had accepted that wasn’t what Barber was exploring. His writing maybe opens the door for that practical discussion.  I’ll be picking through the bibliography for more food books to check out. A final comment on an ebook issue: I didn’t realize there were any notes until I manually flipped through to those pages at the very end. You can click the note to go back into the text, but you can’t go from the text into the notes, which would obviously be the more useful feature. I had no idea there were any citations while I was reading. Come on, ebook, let’s get with the game! You have so much potential.

“Fixtures of agribusiness such as five-thousand-acre grain monocultures and bloated animal feedlots are no more the future of farming than eighteenth-century factories billowing black smoke are the future of manufacturing” (20).

The Bottom Line: The Third Plate is a big book, yet there were parts I still wanted more of! Barber tackles a huge topic, giving the reader plenty of food for thought. I learned a lot, but would have appreciated some science-based explanations as I don’t know much about how farming works. Barber explores how to bring great flavour back into food while eating more of what nature provides. Although he is unable to provide answers to the global issues of food supply and sustainability (as this is beyond the scope of his book), he provides some great insights and an informative read.

Further Reading: 

Sneak Peek: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Release date: 24 February 2015 (20 February Kindle edition)

The first I heard of this book was over at Lone Star on a Lark (Louise has read the whole book, so give her review a look if you want a broader perspective). I was happy to find the ‘sneak peek’ offered on Netgalley and decided to request it, just to see if the story was as good as it sounds. It seemed like a story I would love – but was it too good to be true? I’m happy to report – not at all! I devoured the preview one slow morning at work and nearly cried to know I couldn’t keep reading. Here are some of the reasons why I love this book already:

  • Alternate worlds focused on a Victorian London setting
    • Grey London is dirty, boring, lacks magic, ruled by mad King George. Red London is where life and magic are revered, and the Maresh Dynasty presides over a flourishing empire. White London is ruled by whoever has murdered their way to the throne. People fight to control magic, and the magic fights back, draining the city to its very bones. Once there was Black London – but no one speaks of that now.” (GoodReads description)
  • Well-defined and different attitudes towards magic in each world (see above quote)
  • Prose that pulls you along but isn’t too fancy
  • Semi-royal ambassador main character (I’m not sure why, but I’m really into reading about nobility right now. Not Game of Thrones style nobility…just characters where that’s one part of who they are.)
  • Colourful supporting cast that isn’t too sprawling

This is the kind of story I desperately need right now (one comment I made – “Ooh just what I wanted but didn’t realize I needed!”), so I might be a tad over enthusiastic about it. Admittedly, some might find the beginning slow. But really, the setting is key here. I didn’t mind that there wasn’t a lot happening because I was just happy to be experiencing this new world. If it sounds remotely like your thing – definitely try this book!  I’ve just pre-ordered it and I’m waiting anxiously for release day, which is right near my birthday and a day when I don’t have any classes. 😀 I’ll post a full review once I’ve read the whole thing. For once, I’m already excited to know it’s part of a series. This is a world in which I’m ready to spend a lot of time.

Have you read the preview? What did you think? (Have you read the whole thing? Is my enthusiasm warranted?)

Blogging Discussion: Writing Positive vs. Negative Reviews

Here’s a topic that’s been simmering in my mind since October. I started to contemplate this after posting reviews of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and The Haunting of Hill House. One book I loved and one book I did not love. My personal opinion aside, the two reviews are vastly different in terms of writing style. You might think two different people wrote those reviews! One review I am proud of, one review I am disappointed with. These two reviews stand in stark contrast to one another. I’ve written good positive reviews and bad negative reviews before, but I didn’t really notice the difference between them until I wrote two in such a close time frame.

I’d like to unpack why one review is so articulated and thoughtful, while the other is something of a mushy mess. My writing style seems to match how I feel about each book. If you look at the positive review, you’ll see it’s much longer, more analytical and better written. This sort of review takes a bit of time for me to write because I have many comments to make. I ramble on, then take some time to whittle down and polish my thoughts. The negative review is shorter and less defined. I find it difficult to write anything more concrete than ‘meh’. This sort of review takes ages to write because I don’t know what to say. I have an easier time pinpointing what resonates than what doesn’t resonate. My writing rises and falls to match my opinion of the book I’m writing about. I couldn’t bear to write a lacklustre review of a book I adore as much as The Haunting of Hill House – people must know just how much and why I love it! Whereas, I could care less what people think about my views on Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore because it wasn’t a book I cared about.

I’ve been using the term review, but I want to clarify that’s only a part of what I write when I post here about a book. My format tends towards review-style thoughts (commenting on what appeals or doesn’t appeal to me), followed by more contemplative comments on greater issues in the book and beyond (useful only for those who have read the book and want to think deeper on it), concluding with more personal or random comments (stuff that wouldn’t be helpful to someone deciding if they want to read the book). The first bit is what I’m referring to when I say review here. I want to write a good review even if I didn’t like a book. What’s a ‘good’ review? That’s another subjective question! For me, it’s a review that helps me form an opinion of whether I want to read a book or not. This means I know what the reviewer liked or didn’t like and why (without giving way the whole story), and I can judge for myself if those are things I’ll like or not. I’m not sure I did a great job of this in my Penumbra review. I find it harder to be objective and make useful comments when I don’t like something about a book (ooh, and maybe I’m not being objective when I say that – maybe I just want to think I’m objective in my positive reviews because I want the book to be objectively good! Ouch, my head.)  How can I improve my writing about a book I didn’t enjoy? I think the key is being more specific…but I’m not too certain what I mean by that, haha. Perhaps a better question is, how can I write consistently ‘good’ reviews about books I can’t get in to? The Haunting of Hill House review is better, I think, mostly because I put more thought into it. How can I think just as well about a book I didn’t like as a book I did like?

Questions to ponder: While this could easily become a discussion about positive vs. negative reviews, I’m more interested in how you approach writing those types of reviews. Do you write differently depending on whether your review is positive or negative? What sort of books do you find you give better written (not necessarily positive) reviews? What do you think of my Penumbra review? Would it be helpful if you were deciding whether to read the book? Another question related to all this is, what makes a ‘good review’ for you? Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this subject! I’m still pondering it out myself.