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review 2017-04-12 11:03
A wonderful look at Alzheimer’s, with sci-fi, inspiration, genetics and metaphysics thrown in.
Pale Highway - Nicholas Conley

Thanks to the author who offered me an ARC copy of his novel that I freely chose to review.

When the author approached me about this novel, I didn’t know what to say. I don’t read a lot of science-fiction (although I’ve really enjoyed some of the sci-fi I’ve read. I think my main problem, and the same goes for fantasy, is that I don’t have much patience for world-building and descriptions) but he explained that although it was classed as science-fiction, and indeed it purports a world that is very similar to ours but with some differences (mostly, the protagonist of the novel, Gabriel Schist, years back discovered the HIV-vaccine but , rather than simply creating a vaccine against that illness, his vaccine reprograms the immune system of the person that receives it and protects them against many other illnesses), it was a bit different to most science-fiction. He told me, as mentioned in his biography, that he had worked in nursing homes and the novel was also about Alzheimer’s disease. I read the description of the novel and was intrigued. And yes, I agree with him, his novel is not a standard science-fiction novel, although it’s true that some of the best sci-fi looks at what makes us human and explores metaphysical issues.

The protagonist of the novel, Gabriel, a famous scientist who won the Nobel Prize for his discovery,  is in his early seventies and suffers from Alzheimer’s, fairly early stages, but noticeable enough. He is trying to hold on to his identity, testing his memory and using tricks to orientate himself and hold onto reality, but it is not without difficulties. The book wonderfully describes the residents of the nursing home, some of their peculiar behaviours, but also the persons behind the behaviours. The novel goes back and forth in time, as does the memory of the character, from 2018 to the 1950s, when Gabriel was a weird young boy (he seems to have presented some traits suggestive of autistic spectrum disorder, likely Asperger’s) already determined to solve the problem of future infectious diseases, and also covering the years when he met his wife, the dissolution of his marriage, his great discovery and how he eventually connected and got to know his daughter. All this is interspersed with what is happening now (well, in the very near future) at the nursing home, as Gabriel never goes out. Suddenly, some of the residents start getting ill, and the virus (if that’s what it is) puzzles everybody as it acts as no known illness. Gabriel starts to have strange experiences that he’s not sure if they are hallucinations or real (the readers are free to make up their own minds about this, although if one chooses to go with a rational explanation, there are enough clues within the story to suggest how his mind might have come up with such weird events) and becomes convinced that he’s the only one who can fight this terrible illness. His is a desperate race, not only against the illness itself but also against Alzheimer’s and the progressive degeneration of his mind.

The novel is written in the third person, although always from Gabriel’s point of view, giving the readers a great insight into the processes and difficulties of a mind coming undone, of the strength of memories of the past, sometimes more vivid than the present, and the style is fluid, with some beautifully descriptive passages, and some very vivid moments, particularly Gabriel’s memories, filled with emotion. Gabriel is a scientist and a keen observer, even in his current state, and that serves the novel well.

The characters are realistically drawn and it’s impossible not to care for them. Gabriel is confused and unclear at times, he hesitates and his self-confidence is marred by his illness and by previous experiences. He feels guilty for letting people down in the past, for his use of alcohol (initially to try and fit in with social expectations, as he was too different and too intelligent for most people, but later he got to like it and used it as a coping strategy but also as something he enjoyed), for allowing his wife to leave, for not being there for his daughter … He also feels guilty because he’s always said that human beings are predictable and not interesting enough and he hasn’t loved or cared for many of them. But his experiences through the novel put him to the test more than once and he discovers that it’s never too late to learn more about yourself. The author, who evidently has first-hand knowledge, depicts well the changes in humour, the confusion, the fear, the loneliness, the disorientation, and also the tenacity and the spirit of the elderly residents, including those moments when their personalities shine through the illness. The character of Melanie, Gabriel’s daughter, and her difficulty coming to terms with the illness of her father (all the harder because of his once brilliant mind), reflects well the difficulties of the families, with their guilty feelings for not visiting more often or for not being able to do more and their difficulty accepting the new circumstances (although not everybody is the same, of course).

The running of the facility, Bright New Day, also rings true. Understaffed, with routines to suit staff rather than residents, and with a mix of staff, some very caring and professional and others not so much. The novel is not an indictment of nursing homes, and other than one of the staff members, everybody works hard and is caring, but it does reflect the difficulties of running such facilities within a limited budget and trying to care for residents as individuals.

The plot is intriguing and the issue of if and how Gabriel might manage to defeat the virus is a page turner, although there are some very quirky aspects of the story that some readers might find challenging (not the scientific part as such. Although I’m a doctor I don’t think readers without medical knowledge will have difficulty with the general concepts behind Gabriel’s discovery. It is a fascinating idea). The story requires some suspension of disbelief although it is also possible to read some of the clues offered through the fragments of Gabriel’s memories as proof that a less fanciful interpretation of events is also possible. That is up to each reader.

I have to confess to feeling very moved by the story and being teary-eyed a couple of times but don’t worry, there are fun moments too and it is not a sad story but a life-affirming one. The ending, whatever interpretation we choose to go with is joyful and positive and might be meaningful to many readers.

This is not an easy novel to categorise in any genre. I think most people who are interested in Alzheimer’s will enjoy it, and people who like books on medical subjects, as long as they have a well-developed imagination. I recommend it also to people interested in memory, identity and in the big questions, and to those looking for a positive and inspiring read.

 

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review 2017-04-01 19:56
A great book about the games families play and what love really is.
Practicing Normal - Cara Sue Achterberg

I was given a copy of this book as a gift and I freely chose to review it.

Tolstoi’s probably best-known quote: All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way fits perfectly this novel. As a psychiatrist, ‘normal’ is one of those terms that we always seem to come back to, even if it is impossible to define. It seems that normal is always what other people are, never us. Perhaps, as it is discussed in the novel in reference to Autism and Asperger’s, which are conditions that fall within a spectrum, the same is true for normality. It is not an on or off thing. Perhaps we all belong to some point within the spectrum, but we’d be hard pushed to find many people whom we’d all agree were ‘normal’, at least if we got to know them well.

The novel introduces us to the Turners, who live a reasonably comfortable life within a theoretically idyllic neighbourhood. Once we scratch a bit under the surface, we find: Jenna, the sixteen year old daughter, who is not a goth but likes to shave her hair, dye it in interesting colours, collects piercings and is an ace at breaking into neighbours’ houses (courtesy of her father’s job in a security company). Kate, her mother, is forever busy caring for everybody but herself. She has to look after her mother, Mildred, who might be dementing, or perhaps not, and who lives alone, never leaves the house and talks to her birds. She also has to look after JT, her son, with an Asperger’s diagnosis, who cycles through periods of obsession with different topics (ER Medicine, Fire-fighting…), has tantrums if his routine is disturbed, cannot read people’s expressions or understand their feelings, but is a genius at Maths and has an incredible memory. She also runs around the rest of the household and is always worried about her husband, Everett, who cheated on her once (that she knows of). The chapters alternate the first-person narrations of Jenna (who somehow becomes friendly with the rich, handsome and all-around nice neighbour, Wells, who isn’t, after all, the stereotypical jock), and Kate (whose sister, Evelyn, has made contact with their father, Frank, who left them when they were young children, and believes their mother has been lying to them) allowing the reader to better grasp, not only the secrets they all keep from each other, but also the different ways the same events can be interpreted and seen. Everett’s narration (also in the first person) joins later, giving us hints of more secrets to come,  allowing us a more rounded picture and offering us a male perspective.

I found the first person narrations served well the topic, and the voices of the three narrators were very distinct and fitted in well with their characters. Although personally, I can’t say I liked Everett very much, no characters are despicable and all of them love their family and each other, even if they might go about it the wrong way. Jenna’s strong hostility towards her father is easy to understand, not only because he cheated on her mother (and is still doing it after promising not to) but because she had idealised him when she was a child and he’s shattered that illusion. She is clever, challenging and reckless but with a great heart (she doesn’t care for rules or conventions but has no bad intentions) and her romance will bring warm memories to all readers who are still young at heart. Kate is a woman who is always at the service of others and makes big efforts to ignore what she feels she can’t cope with, even if it means living a lie. But she learns that she is stronger than she thinks and grows during the novel. She also gets to understand that her dreams of romantic love are unrealistic, and we feel optimistic for her at the end. Everett is a man who lost his way (it seems) when he left his job as a policeman. Now, to feel better about himself he’ll do almost anything, not caring what the consequences for himself and others might be, and he always puts his needs before those of the rest of his family. He does not understand his children but he loves them and tries to do what he thinks is best, within limits. JT is a wonderful character, well-drawn and realistic in terms of the behaviours he exhibits and his relationship with Kate, Jenna and the rest of the family is heart-warming and has the ring of truth.

There are many secrets, some that come from a long time back and some much more recent, and the narrative is good at revealing them slowly, even if we might strongly suspect some of them, partly because we have access to the thoughts of several the characters (as they don’t communicate with each other that well). There are also many love stories and many different kinds of love that are explored. Ultimately, love must be about more than just saying the words and looking into each other’s eyes. It isn’t something we should feel automatically entitled to; it has to be proven and worked on, as Cassey, a friend of Jenna and later Kate, explains.

The secondary characters are also interesting, mostly sympathetic (with the exception of Wells’s family, and Evelyn, who comes across as self-centered and domineering) but not drawn in as much psychological detail as the members of the family, but they are far from unidimensional. I really liked Cassey, the hospice nurse who understands all the females of the family and helps them without asking anything in return, and Phil, a good man who, like Wells, disproves Mildred’s generalisations about men. Mildred, the grandmother, can be at once annoying and endearing, but eventually, we get to understand her a bit better, even if we might not necessarily agree with her actions. I also loved the animals, especially Marco.

This is a well-written book, where plot and characterisation go hand in hand, that offers good psychological insights into the nature of family relationships and the games members of a family play with each other. It also will make readers think about what love means and will remind them of the risks of keeping secrets, not only from others but also from ourselves. The narration flows well and once you get to know the characters it’s difficult to stop reading and you feel bereft when you come to the end as they’ve become part of the family. A great read.

I couldn’t leave you without sharing a few of the sentences I highlighted.

Never break more than one law at a time.

Kate talking about JT, her son, with Asperger’s: but I focus on what JT can do, not what he can’t.

Kate again, wondering about her son’s inability to read other people’s expressions and know what they’re feeling or thinking:

Maybe it would be easier to sail through life unaware of the emotions of the people around you.

And Jenna, on one of her typical (and oh, so accurate, sorry gentlemen) pearls of wisdom (although this one she keeps to herself):

If men didn’t have penises, they’d probably be a lot smarter.

 

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review 2017-03-06 02:02
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley
The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie - Jennifer Ashley

As usual, I regret that I didn’t review this sooner. My memories of this book are fuzzier than I’d like, but at least I took notes while reading. I’ll do the best I can.

Beth Ackerley used to be an elderly woman’s companion until the woman died and left everything to her. Now Beth is a wealthy but lonely widow. She thinks that marrying Lyndon Mather will help relieve her loneliness, until Lord Ian Mackenzie warns her about Mather’s mistresses. Since her idea about remarrying didn’t work out, Beth decides to travel to Paris and spend her time painting instead (never mind that she has never painted before in her life).

The thing is, Ian has decided that Beth is going to be his wife - not because he has fallen instantly in love with her, but rather because he wants to have sex with her, and sex with a respectable lady like Beth requires marriage (even Beth wonders at the logic of this). He follows her to Paris, where she asks that the two of them be lovers, but nothing more. The situation is complicated by several murders. An inspector warns Beth that Ian is probably the killer and can’t be trusted, while Beth finds herself unable to believe that Ian could ever murder anyone. But Ian is definitely hiding something

I had heard lots of good things about this book when it first came out. It’s been sitting in my TBR for ages, and a recent Booklikes Romance Readalong gave me a reason to finally dig into it. It...was not what I’d hoped for.

One of the appeals of this book is its unusual hero, who the author wrote as having Asperger’s syndrome. Those exact words were never used in the text - Ian was instead called “mad” and committed to an insane asylum by his own father when he was only 10 years old. He was later released by his eldest brother. In the book’s present, Ian obsessively collects Ming bowls and considers himself incapable of love.

I’d love to read a review of this book written by someone with Asperger’s. I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about this aspect of the book. On the one hand, the details of Ian’s behavior fit with what little I knew about Asperger’s. On the other hand, I wondered about the accuracy of the book’s depiction of Ian’s relationships with others.

It bugged me, a lot, that for most of the book Ian couldn’t seem to interact with Beth in any way except sexually. Sometimes they talked about their personal lives, but their conversations almost always veered towards sex, even before Beth broke off her engagement to Mather (which, by the way, struck me as hypocritical). I expect romance novels to have actual romance in them, but for the most part this book just had lusting and sex. And as much as Beth referred to Ian as her “friend,” there was also very little in the way of what I’d call “friendship building” scenes.

There were some nice moments. For example, I loved the scene in which Beth rattled off some details about Ian’s newest Ming bowl acquisitions and then told Ian that she’d picked up a book on the subject. This was the kind of thing I’d have liked to see more of. Unfortunately, I could probably count these kinds of lovely scenes on one hand. I felt like Beth and Thomas, Beth’s deceased husband, had a stronger and more appealing on-page relationship than Beth and Ian. Awkward.

Aside from my issues with Ian and Beth’s almost purely sexual relationship, I also had problems with Beth in particular. For a woman who considered herself to be at least a little worldly, she had terrible self-preservation instincts. That’s the only thing I can think of to explain her decision to ask Ian to be her lover when, only minutes before, an inspector told her that Ian might be a murderer. I couldn’t understand why Beth believed in Ian so strongly. I mean, through less rosy lenses Ian’s behavior could easily have been interpreted as that of a predator. Shortly after meeting Beth, he told her things he knew would prompt her to end her engagement to Mather. Then he relentlessly pursued her, despite only recently having met her. Oh, and he also attempted to strangle the inspector right in front of her.

Then there was the scene in which Beth agreed to marry Ian. I loathed that scene and, if I had been Beth, I’d have held what Ian and Mac did against them for a long time. They decided they knew what was best for her, and then they did their best to make sure she had little choice but to go along with them. I wish she had raged at them, or been icily angry at them. Instead she just gave in. Some of the best moments in Ian and Beth’s relationship happened after this point, but absolutely none of it was good enough to make up for that one scene. I’m not a book thrower, but I came very close to doing just that.

Anyway, the mystery subplot was interesting and kept me going, even though the resolution was messy and unsatisfying. This was a quick read that kept my attention, but unfortunately it wasn't anywhere near as good as I had expected it to be. Also, none of the very obvious sequel-bait left me with a desire to read anything else in this series. Mac and Isabella’s relationship, in particular, struck me as being more unpleasant than intriguing.

 

(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)

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photo 2016-07-19 22:07
Everyday Aspergers

BOOK REVIEW:

 

"Everyday Aspergers is an unusual and powerful exploration of one woman's marvelously lived life. Reminiscent of the best of Anne Lamott, Everyday Aspergers jumps back and forth in time through a series of interlocking vignettes that give insight and context to her lived experience as an autistic woman. The humor and light touch is disarming, because underneath the light observations and quirky moments are buried deep truths about the human experience and about her own work as an autistic woman discerning how to live her best life. From learning how to make eye contact to finding ways to communicate her needs to being a dyslexic cheerleader and a fraught mother of also-autistic boys, Samantha Craft gives us a marvelous spectrum of experiences. Highly recommended for everyone to read -- especially those who love people who are just a little different.”

 

(I write this as someone who loves people who are not just average -- my novel The Eagle Tree is about just such a person.)

 

The new book by Olympia-based Samantha Craft ( @aspergersgirls ) is EVERYDAY ASPERGERS and I highly recommend this book as a great set of vignettes about life on the spectrum #actuallyautistic http://amzn.to/2a9XzX9

Source: www.amazon.com/review/R5E0IDX5J5V03/ref=cm_cr_dp_title?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1610058054&channel=detail-glance&nodeID=283155&store=books
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review 2016-06-07 15:26
His Pretend Baby
His Pretend Baby: His Pretend Baby: 50 Loving States, Oregon - Theodora Taylor

This was cute.

I liked that the two mains were a little off center. I especially liked how being on the spectrum manifested itself in many of Go's personality quirks. I also liked how well the author used Nyla's past to inform her present personality. It wasn't over-done to the point where I felt like it was a cheap shortcut, but rather just a smart underline to explain why she is so protective of herself.

I will say I think this book felt short. It ends at 15% on my kindle e-reader. It is hard to say how long this book actually is because it is bundled with three other full length books. In page length I would estimate with was about 150? maybe. It is enough to create a grounding in the characters and get you invested in Go and Nyla but not enough to fill in some emotional blanks. For instance Marco's death in the beginning didn't seem to touch Nyla. She expressed regret but it felt just like a set up to just get her to the MOC with Go. Also in the end she does something really, really

huge cutting her former best friend's throat with a piece of glass and watching her die and bleed out  

(spoiler show)

and yet, we jump to an epilogue and there doesn't seem to be any emotional fall out from that.

But all in all I did like this. It was fun. Go and Nyla were sexy. And they worked well together and had good chemistry. I just wish the book had felt just a bit fuller.

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